Jazz Album Review: Herbie Hancock — A Musician of Nearly Endless Curiosity

Amongst the acoustic live sessions, listeners should be delighted with the Chick Corea-Herbie Hancock duets.

Herbie Hancock: The Complete Columbia Album Collection, 1972-1988 (37 discs; Columbia 8697-72408-2)


By Michael Ullman

Miles Davis was particularly skilled at choosing pianists. These included Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, and Bill Evans, all three of whom were innovators who went on to form trios. His next pianist had even wider ambitions. After playing with Miles Davis for five years, Herbie Hancock told the trumpeter that he wanted to start his own sextet. It appeared to be a questionable career choice in 1968, particularly at a time when interest in jazz seemed to be shrinking. Still, Hancock made a success of the move, first with an acoustic group, and then, after a few years, with his band Mwandishi, which revolved around Hancock’s experiments with electronics. (It also included trumpeter Eddie Henderson and the wonderful, underrated saxophonist Benny Maupin.) Modelled after Miles Davis’ electric groups, and coming in the wake of Davis’ unprecedented success with Bitches Brew, the untraditional Hancock band started off by playing long, open-ended pieces based on simple riffs, enlivened by Hancock’s solos and electronic effects from Patrick Gleason. They experimented with group improvisations that were, as I remember, often delightfully spacey. (Something close to the music created by the early electric Hancock can be heard on Mwandishi: The Complete Warner Brothers Recordings, Warner 2-45732.)

Hancock wasn’t alone in this eclectic approach. The early performances of Weather Report, formed by Davis alumni Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, were similarly free. Though I remember there were enthusiastic critical responses to both bands in their early days, Hancock and Zawinul soon re-thought what they were doing, presumably because audiences were left puzzled. Weather Report started to feature mini-concertos composed by Zawinul. Hancock moved to Columbia Records from Warner Brothers and began to record a series of ground-breaking, innovative funk-jazz records, the first of which can be found on the opening discs in this collection: Sextant and the wildly popular Head Hunters. (The opening bass line to “Chameleon” is so compelling it has become famous in itself.) For the next decade and a half, Hancock demonstrated an equal opportunity talent: he managed to thrill audiences and confound the critics. Hancock’s training as an engineer is reflected in his continuing fascination with electronics. The liner notes in the Columbia Album Collection provide a helpful list of the instruments that were simulated: Hancock created drum lines, bass lines, the sounds of strings, horns, penny whistles, and less identifiable squeaks and squawks. He performed entire LP sides by himself — not as a solo pianist, but through the manipulation of a dizzying array of synthesizers and electric instruments. Somehow, he made it all, or at least most of it, fascinating.

In his 16 years with Columbia, Hancock would issue 31 records. His electronic-based funk and disco recordings were made in the studio. He also recorded live (with one exception) with V.S.O.P, which was essentially the Miles Davis quintet with Freddie Hubbard substituting for Davis. Evidently George Wein came up as early as 1976 with the idea of presenting a retrospective of Hancock’s career. The resulting concert, issued as V.S.O.P (Very Special One time Performance) was such a success that the band toured for years with an expanding repertoire that avoided a hint of smug nostalgia. Given the commandingly brash style of Hubbard (as opposed to Davis’ melancholy), it seems that intensity made all the difference, not only in mood, but in repertoire: I am pretty sure nobody wanted to play “Walkin” again. Instead, they revived Hubbard’s soul hit “Red Clay.”

The collection contains four double discs by V.S.O.P, including the valuable Tempest in the Colosseum, one of a half dozen sessions found in this collection that were originally released on expensive LPs only available in Japan. This concert, recorded in Tokyo, found the band in a meditative mood. Wayne Shorter and Hancock and Ron Carter perform the ballad “Diana,” and the entire band plays a slow, almost dreamy version of Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.” The interchanges between soloists and rhythm section come off as as series of constantly enlivening conversations: it’s clear that these masters have worked with one another for more than a decade. At one moment during Hancock’s solo on “Maiden Voyage,” drummer Tony Williams drops out, highlighting the creative interplay between Hancock and bassist Ron Carter. Hancock alternates nimbly between single note lines and grandiose gestures, such as heavily pedalled arpeggios and scalar passages. The result is that this version of “Maiden Voyage” temporarily becomes a kind of rhapsody. The versatility of Hancock’s piano style is spotlighted elsewhere as well: when disc 27 moves from an excision into funk to a piano trio session, one notices the enduring delicacy of his acoustic sound.

To be sure, much of what is found in this collection is something like funk. In his sometimes clunky prose, the collection’s annotator comments: “As the ’70s moved towards broader formats for composers to incorporate into their creative potential, Herbie was able to explore the effects of common socialization on popular music.” This music can be startlingly effective, and there is welcome variety: on the powerful “Spider” from the first V.S.O.P. concert, Hancock plays subtle acoustic piano against the funk beats of his electric band. Later records, such as Sunlight are deliberately planned mixed bags. The disc contains an unabashed pop song, “I Thought It was You,” to which Hancock returned in later sessions. The tune comes off as insipid, even with Hancock himself doing the vocal honors. Its lyrics, “You don’t have to be afraid anymore” because “I’m yours, I’m yours” may be soothing but they are also saccharine, and the arrangement with strings and brass choir borders on the terminally sappy. Still, in one of the last discs of this collection, Hancock returns to the song with Japanese singer Kimiko Kasai, and she miraculously transforms the piece before scatting on “Maiden Voyage.” On the last number of Sunlight, Hancock is joined by bassist Jaco Pastorius and Tony Williams: the jam “Good Question” rockets along with the hearty intensity of the best Hancock. There are more traditionally swinging numbers on the discs as well, such as the gently rocking “Shiftless Shuffle” on Directstep with Webster Lewis on organ.

Herbie Hancock on the keyboard. Photo: Michael Ullman

Herbie Hancock on the keyboard at New York’s Lincoln Center circa 1978. Photo: Michael Ullman.

Not everything works for me. Feets Don’t Fail proffers sophisticated electronics but adolescent lyrics: “Trust me, I never play love like a game.” I wouldn’t trust the singer for a minute. This lover has, Hancock pleads, aching palms in the presence of his beloved. Even on this LP, though, we find a powerful drum solo over a funk beat on “Tell Everybody,” and the pleasingly melodic song “Honey from the Jar.” When it comes to Hancock’s vocals, his voice is often so distorted he sounds as croaky as Tom Waits. That’s a good thing. There’s more: a salsa tune, “Saturday Night,” featuring Carlos Santana, which is unfortunately followed by the prosy “Stars in the Your Eyes.” (Hancock doesn’t do particularly well with romantic ballads.) On “Calypso,” Hancock plays piano and synthesized “steel drums.” There’s even a little comedy in the rap “Don’t Hold It In,” which is about a guy who goes to a party where everyone undresses and jumps into a pool.

Amongst the acoustic live sessions, listeners will no doubt be delighted with the Chick Corea-Herbie Hancock duets. On the old tune “Liza,” once associated with Earl Hines, we hear two virtuosos playing increasingly wacky, playful lines until Corea calls a halt to the goofiness with a lazy phrase that fundamentally changes the nature of the exchange. Hancock comes back with something like a rocking stride and then the two ping pong phrases that range up and down the piano, each challenging the other to match the rapidly shifting mood. It is like an elaborate game of tag. What’s most striking about these duets are their volatility, the quicksilver shifts in technique and approach as the pianists antically challenge each other. “Button Up” begins with Corea striking a muffled string in a rhythmic pattern. Hancock takes up the same monotone approach, and finally they duet on this single string, with more and more energy until Hancock breaks away and returns to the normal sound of the piano. It’s a joy. And of course we have Future Shock with the tune MTV made famous (“Rockit”) beside more obscure sessions, such as the duets Hancock did with the African kora player Foday Musa Suso. Hancock’s curiosity seems nearly endless.

Generally the music on this collection is what was presented on LP. There are certain exceptions, such as the four alternate takes from the Japanese session that resulted in The Piano. The Quintet: Five Stars has both the edited take on the original LP and the unedited ones that appeared on a later CD version. Live Under the Sky (VSOP) has a second disc that is made up mostly of music not on the LP. On Future Shock a six minute mix of a half dozen pieces, including “Chameleon” and “Rockit,” has been edited. One of the collection’s good ideas is to reproduce the original album covers.The gathering ends with The Perfect Machine. One might think that the machine Hancock had in mind was a piano: he tells us it’s a human being.

A final note: For years, Hancock kindly sent signed copies of his records to my neighbor Arnold Perlmutter, the creator of the ARP synthesizers. Perlmutter was proud of those records, but he didn’t own one of his synthesizers. He used the money he made from his invention to buy a 9 foot Steinway grand.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

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