Herbie Hancock Times Six

With numerous other Hancock projects to choose from, one could reasonably stay away from this year's Return of the Headhunters. Hancock only performs on four of its ten tracks, and though the subsequent tour this fall was well received, the album is very middle-of-the-road. Today, the Headhunters sound like a really tight funk band, but the band is not much different from any of the other artists heard on smooth jazz radio, except when Bennie Maupin's distinctive reed work really kicks in. There's better smooth jazz and jazz-funk on the racks, such as Headhunters and Thrust, for instance.

All of Hancock's work leads up to Gershwin's World. Hancock says his goal of late is "making events, not just records," and this one is a masterpiece -- one of the best albums of 1998. Gershwin's World is an insightfully sequenced concept album, an unconventional view of classic music written by George Gershwin and his contemporaries Maurice Ravel, James P. Johnson, W.C. Handy and Duke Ellington. Hancock's scenarios sometimes seem contrived on the surface, but they work flawlessly. Joni Mitchell belts out "The Man I Love" and "Summertime" like a sultry jazz singer, a stride piano duet with Chick Corea is reminiscent of the piano battles of old, and Hancock's jazz piano explorations over orchestral arrangements of "Lullaby" and "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G, 2nd Movement" are splendid. His arrangement of "Prelude in C# minor" creates a tribal backdrop for Kathleen Battle's haunting, shimmering soprano; he also gets a solid performance from Stevie Wonder on an R&B version of "St. Louis Blues" that really cooks. Hancock's take on the music is brilliant -- absolute proof that he's still one of the most important artistic forces in music. At 58, Hancock, like his late mentor Miles Davis, doesn't have a musical history; he has a legacy.

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