Keyboardist Joey Porter remembers the first time he encountered Herbie Hancock — or, to be more precise, the first time he mainlined Hancock’s feral funk stylings after the pianist had left Miles Davis’ legendary quintet in 1968.
“In college,” Porter recalls, “I took this jazz course, which was more or less just smoking weed and listening to jazz records. We had this sort of stoner/hippie teacher and all we did was go through jazz history and write papers about how it made us feel. It was pretty funny. So I knew Herbie’s music from that, the jazz stuff but not the Headhunters stuff.
“So I moved to Portland in 1994 and I had this neighbor who says, ‘Hey, I got this Herbie Hancock record you might like,’ and I was like ‘Eh, you know, I’m more into funk now, not so much the jazz stuff.’ … So he played ‘Chameleon’ for me, and I was like, what the heck is this stuff? This is amazing. I just listened to the whole album and said, ‘How did I not know about this?’ It was like the music I had invented in my own mind. It was an epiphany for me — I just dove headlong into all of it, all Herbie’s funk stuff from about 1970 to 1976.”
Porter, along with Dave Watts, Garrett Sayers, Dan Schwindt and Dominic Lalli, will be staging their semi-regular Herbie Hancock tribute gig at the Boulder Theater Friday, July 27. The Motet/Juno What/Big Gigantic mafia have been working tribute shows for a few years now — past shows have included The Dead, Talking Heads, Madonna and Earth, Wind and Fire, while Parliament-Funkadelic is on tap for this year’s Halloween extravaganza — but if the rock and pop trib shows are audience appreciation gigs, the Hancock dates are a players’ experience.
Porter has been staging Herbie gigs since his Portland days, and still stages an annual show there with members of his old band Porterhouse. So this is familiar territory for the keyboardist, but he says he still approaches Hancock’s proto-funk explorations with a palpable sense of humility.
Hancock, after all, was an already well-established jazz pianist and composer by the time the Headhunters scene took off — this is was not a trivial artistic indulgence. While many of his fellow Davis alumni pointed their post-Davis careers toward fusion and world music tangents, Hancock turned his attention toward funk, packing almost a decade of trad jazz chops into a newly charged enthusiasm for electronics.
A little intimidating? “No doubt,” Porter agrees. “I’m a funk player first and a jazz player second. He was a jazzer first and a funk player second. I kind of learned them in reverse. But I love this stuff, and it’s great to try and play it and do it justice, you know? I know I’ll never play this with the same ability as Herbie Hancock. He’s one of the greatest keyboard players in history.”
Did anyone play a wah-pedal clavinet better than Herbie, that chunky trademark chop long since embossed on the ’70s as the sonic calling card to blaxploitation films and cop show theme songs?
“Maybe George Duke,” Porter suggests. “The two of them really defined that sound. Stevie Wonder also, and the guy from Tower of Power, Chester Thompson, who’s mainly known for his organ work but also played some incredible clavinet. I learned a lot from him.
“I think the reason the clavinet became popular was … you play it through an amp and it has actual strings in it, so it sounds kind of like a guitar. You can play it percussively, like Herbie and all these guys did, so it kind of sounds like you’re playing a guitar.
“All of a sudden, the keyboard player — you know, the ‘nerd’ guy in the band — he’s one going all funky and stuff. It was a whole new ballgame.”
And further burnishing this music’s repute 40 years after the fact, reigniting the imaginations of funk players two generations down the line, Porter says that even if Hancock brought a master’s chops and a Davis-alumni depth of harmony to the Headhunters project, his reputation with skeptical jazz purists still took a hit.
“A lot of the jazz aficionados dumped Herbie when he started playing this funk stuff,” Porter says. “They were all saying, ‘You need to be playing acoustic piano, and you need to be swinging.
You don’t need to be playing this funk stuff anymore.”