On his third consecutive all-star album collaboration, Herbie Hancock reaches not so much for the stars as he does around the world. The Grammy winning jazz journeyman takes songs of affirmation – some obvious, some wonderfully unexpected – enlists a stable of international pop celebrities, places the graceful and immensely animated cool of his keyboard work (with emphasis on piano over electronics) in the driver’s seat and takes everything out for a hearty global spin.
How far reaching is Hancock’s treatise on cross-continental pop diplomacy? How about a reading of Bob Dylan’s social anthem The Times They Are a’ Changin’ that begins with a stoic vocal hush from Lisa Hannigan before the tempo takes on a livelier Celtic air. Cue the Chieftains, which briskly alter the musical atmosphere. But what’s that harp-like accent sprinkled over the summit? Why, it’s the angelic kora playing of Malian instrumental star Toumani Diabete.
From America to Ireland to West Africa in about eight minutes – that’s some serious globetrotting.
Sound wild? Then try this. Take the The Beatles’ psychedelic staple Tomorrow Never Knows and add in the vocal haze of Dave Mathews. But what’s that chugging string charge that sounds less like a blast of Brit-pop day-tripping and more like a backyard jam session? Hey, it’s banjoist/guitarist Danny Barnes, one of Americana music’s great unsung stylists getting a long overdue big league break.
And for a sound that is a little more continental, there is Matthew Moore’s Space Captain, a funky bit of carnival-style soul that Joe Cocker helped popularize four decades ago during his Mad Dogs and Englishmen days. Here, the homegrown soul sound comes from the first couple of inventive jam band music, Dereks Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. It’s an earthy, rootsy revision with a serious gospel underpinning that appropriately grabs the tune by the collar at several points.
The guest card occasionally gets a little crowded. A two-part reinvention of John Lennon’s Imagine, the album’s namesake tune, has to make room for vocal turns by India.Arie, Seal and Pink. That tends to squeeze an instrumental break by guitar great Jeff Beck out of the picture. His solo is clean and engaging, but a bit muted by all the company.
And where is Hancock during all of the ceremonies? Oh, he is very much in charge. One might be initially drawn to the guest stars, but listen to the way his piano work makes a lovely, dark lullaby out of Peter Gabriel’s Don’t Give It Up or the melodic warmth he weaves around James Morrison’s vocal turns on the Sam Cooke soul classic A Change is Gonna Come. What you hear is a piano voice every bit as worldly as the global journey The Imagine Project takes us on.