Sextant (Columbia Legacy)
Thrust (Columbia Legacy)
Town Hall Concert (Blue Note)
Return of the Headhunters (Verve)
Gershwin's World (Verve)
Herbie Hancock, the most influential jazz pianist to emerge since Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, has had a career filled with musical landmarks. As one of jazz's bestselling artists and a five-time Grammy winner, Hancock has made 40-plus solo albums that run the gamut from straight-ahead acoustic jazz to fusion, from avant-garde to hip-hop. His music is consistently excellent; even his most commercial material has some artistic merit. Six Hancock recordings have been released in the past six months, each from a different phase in his multidirectional career.
The classically trained Hancock learned jazz as a kid by transcribing Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum records and broke onto the scene when he joined trumpeter Donald Byrd's group in 1961. He was quickly signed by Byrd's label Blue Note, an association that lasted from 1962 to 1969. It's documented on The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions, six CDs' worth of some of the decade's best jazz. The set consists of the seven albums Hancock recorded for Blue Note, plus several alternate takes and a couple of tracks Hancock did as a sideman for Byrd, Jackie McLean, Wayne Shorter and Bobby Hutcherson.
Hancock's Blue Note debut was the aptly titled Takin' Off, which contains the breakthrough classic "Watermelon Man," a crossover hit for Mongo Santamaria. In 1963, following his second album, Hancock joined the Miles Davis Quintet, where he would stay until 1968. With Davis, he recorded several milestones, including six albums with the legendary quintet lineup of Davis, Hancock, Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams (documented earlier this year on Davis's The Complete Quintet Recordings: 1965-1968).
Early-'60s songs like "Watermelon Man" and "Cantaloupe Island" (the latter sampled by US3 on their early-'90s hit "Cantaloop") showed Hancock had a clever, funky touch, but they didn't predict his prodigious development. By 1965, he had solidified his reputation as a composing powerhouse with Maiden Voyage. Its five songs have become jazz standards, and Freddie Hubbard delivers one of the greatest trumpet solos ever recorded on the somber title track.
Putting his efforts into the Davis quintet, studio work and scoring the soundtrack to Blow Up, Hancock didn't record another solo album until 1968, when he released the ambitious Speak Like a Child, followed (after he'd left Davis) by The Prisoner, which continued its direction with a darker feel. Influenced by the sophisticated arrangements of Thad Jones, Gil Evans and Oliver Nelson, these records are more harmonically challenging than his previous work and are scored for a larger ensemble. The title track of Speak is a musical tapestry, with solos and patterns curiously, magically woven around each other. Hancock was no longer writing songs, but creating moods and images with solos designed to expand them.
Reissued by Columbia Legacy this summer, Sextant and Thrust are two vastly different Hancock albums from the mid '70s. Sextant is Hancock's first recording for Columbia and his last with his groundbreaking sextet, a forceful avant-garde unit, featuring Bennie Maupin (soprano sax, bass clarinet, piccolo), Buster Williams (bass), Billy Hart (drums), Eddie Henderson (trumpet, flYgelhorn) and Julian Priester (trombone), that had previously cut Mwandishi and Crossings on Warner Bros. Their songs didn't use chords, relied on ostinatos and filled the air with extended edgy solos, percussion and synthesizers. Jazz and African rhythms are mixed with layers of electronic effects and hints of funk; Hancock uses several keyboards to create a spacy collage of effects as a backdrop for freeform solos. The least accessible of the recent Hancock re-releases, Sextant shows some signs of what Hancock would do next, but not many. Disenchanted by the sextet's lack of public acceptance and its financial drain (see sidebar), Hancock disbanded it and changed directions. This time, he was ready to funk.
For his next move, Hancock held on to Bennie Maupin from the sextet and brought in Paul Jackson, Bill Summers and Harvey Mason (later replaced by Mike Clark) to form the Headhunters. Their first album, the 1973 classic Headhunters, is an incomparable mix of jazz and funk inspired by the likes of Sly and the Family Stone. A commercial success, it put Hancock atop the fusion movement and into sold-out venues.
Its 1974 follow-up, Thrust, is filled with long, hot jams, strong solos, cool synthesized effects (some dated, some not), catchy riffs, killer percussion and those unique Hancock voicings (almost always on an electric keyboard). But where Headhunters began the jazz-funk revolution, Thrust is just one of the many good albums that followed in its path, though the playing is tight and fun. After recording one more album with the Headhunters, Hancock moved on, while the rest of the band recorded two more albums sans Hancock before going their separate ways in the mid '70s. It would be 20 years before Hancock would play with the them again, appearing on this year's Return of the Headhunters and touring with the band this fall.
Just a partial list of Hancock's post-Headhunters accomplishments reads like a jazz musician's fantasy: Grammys, an Oscar for scoring the film 'Round Midnight, acoustic piano duets with Chick Corea, the all star quintet V.S.O.P. (featuring Hubbard, Shorter, Carter and Williams), other all-star tours with the likes of Jack DeJohnette and Pat Metheny, and the electro-funk megahit "Rockit." One enjoyable footnote in Hancock's career is Town Hall Concert. A previously unreleased live date recorded in 1985, it's a bebop piano clinic featuring Hancock, Carter, Williams, Henderson, Hubbard, Hutcherson and flutist James Newton. Whether it's an update of "Cantaloupe Island" with blues-inflected vamps or an empathetic duet with Hutcherson, Hancock's playing is killer.
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.