Herbie Hancock's star-studded The Imagine Project was several years in the making, recorded in seven countries with musicians from all over the globe. Hancock's band with producer/bassist Larry Klein, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, percussionist Alex Acuña, and guitarist Lionel Loueke is a common denominator. Much of what's here is interpretations of well-known pop, folk, and soul songs. That said, The Imagine Project (named for the John Lennon song) feels more like an overreach than a seamless or successful series of collaborations.
The best things are indeed fine. There's a gorgeous reading of Baden Powell's “Tempo de Amore,” thanks to Lucas Martins’ bassline and CéU's singing. “Space Captain” by the Derek Trucks-Susan Tedeschi Band -- with Hancock and Colaiuta -- brings out a much-needed soulful grit to Tedeschi’s vocals, gospelized four-party harmony, and Trucks' tough slide playing. Bob Dylan's “The Times They Are a Changin'," with Lisa Hannigan's raw, emotive vocals, is underscored by interplay between the Chieftains, Toumani Diabaté's kora, and Hancock's piano. The tune moves past its American folk revival beginnings to reflect a global sentiment. “Tamatant Tilay”/”Exodus” pairs the nomad Malian guitar band Tinariwen’s song with Bob Marley's classic. K’NAAN, Tinariwen, and three members of Los Lobos are all featured on vocals. Tinariwen dominates with Hancock’s funky clavinet pushing against their snaky wall of guitars and ululating singing; it's the hippest track here. Klein’s “The Song Goes On,” features Anoushka Shankar, Wayne Shorter, Chaka Khan, and K.S. Chithra with some lyrics translated into Hindi. A full-on Indian session band interacts with Shorter’s knotty soprano sax, and the only truly engaged Hancock piano playing on the set is here. Then there's the rest: “Imagine"'s intro features overwrought singing by Pink and Seal, but turns itself into a Caribbean-flavored tune with India.Arie and her tasteful understatement. Konono No. 1's driving likembe break has Oumou Sangare's vocal accompaniment adding depth to save it. Peter Gabriel's “Don’t Give Up,” a duet between Pink and John Legend, reeks of overproduction; Legend's singing mimics Gabriel’s; Pink's dry acrobatics are hollow. Dave Matthews is a poor choice as a lead vocalist on the Beatles' “Tomorrow Never Knows.” His voice is unexpressive and doesn’t match the musical drama created by drummer Matt Chamberlain, and Danny Barnes and Michael Claves on psychedelicized banjos and guitars. This mixed bag of a record feels like a deliberate grab at Record of the Year Grammy, but it's too uneven. Hancock has taken many risks in his career, but this doesn’t feel like one of them.