While some might disagree, arguably pianist Herbie Hancock’s most memorable performances on tape would have to include his own Blue Note sessions and sideman appearances with Miles Davis. That is not to say that he’s done nothing of significance since the ‘60s, but for sheer mainstream brilliance nothing really comes close to Maiden Voyage or such Miles albums as Miles Smiles and E.S.P. Now for the first time, Hancock’s post Blue Note/post Miles work is the subject of an intensive retrospective that spans 13 years and samples music from 23 different albums recorded during Hancock’s tenure with Columbia Records.
Probably the most sensationalistic aspect of The Herbie Hancock Box is in the presentation. Literally housed in a clear Plexiglas box, each of four discs slides into grooves along the box’s sides, as does the accompanying booklet. The box I received as a review copy was pretty well marked and scratched due to the fact that the discs and booklet had come from their tracks and looked like they had been tossed around in shipping. As such, it might be wise to carefully examine the box before purchase to make sure everything’s intact.
The entire first and second discs are devoted to acoustic material, much of it featuring the VSOP line-up of Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. A good many of the performances have only been available in Japanese issues over the years and their appearance here is of note. The only thing one has to wonder is how essential these versions of such old favorites as “Maiden Voyage,” “The Sorcerer,” “Dolphin Dance” and “Eye of the Hurricane” are when the original incarnations are still available and often superior. Considering that Hancock and crew were former students of Miles Davis and that the Prince of Darkness himself was creating music far from the mainstream manifesto during the same period, the retro feel that dominates seems at odds with the Master’s teachings.
Disc three kicks in with a flowering of electronics and commercial sensibilities, although “Rain Dance” (from Sextant ) is an odd bit of dated material that almost sounds like the accompanying soundtrack to an episode of The Outer Limits. Also showing its age just a bit, the main theme from Hancock’s soundtrack music for Death Wish somehow gets one’s attention and whets the appetite for more, like a reissue of the entire album. In a bit of irreverent splicing, the pots fade up for a blistering and satisfying take on “Actual Proof” from the live Japanese session Flood, another album that sinfully remains out-of-print.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, the remainder of disc three and about half of disc four features Hancock’s commercial pratfalls from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Banal vocals on “Come Running to Me” and “Stars in Your Eyes” don’t even come close to being attractive pop hooks and they sure don’t funk out like Sly, The Meters, or Maceo Parker. Like his fellow Columbia label mate Freddie Hubbard, Hancock was stretching for something different and more often than not he missed. The remainder of disc four somewhat makes up for things in that “Rockit” and “Karabali” testify to the redeeming nature of Bill Laswell’s production values and the sense that Hancock had finally found his voice again amidst his electronic battery.
In the end, The Herbie Hancock Box brings to light some rare sides, a previously unissued performance of “Red Clay,” and a thorough re-examination of Hancock in the throws of some changing times. Completists will find it all well worth their time and investment, but those with only a marginal interest in Hancock’s later works would probably do better by picking up Headhunters or Future Shock.
1. Introduction To Maiden Voyage 2. Maiden Voyage 3. Para Oriente 4. Harvest Time 5. Sorcerer, The 6. Diana 7. Finger Painting 8. Round Midnight 9. Eye Of The Hurricane, The
DISC 2: 1. Domo 2. Dolphin Dance 3. Liza (All The Clouds'll Roll Away) 4. Eighty-One 5. Milestones 6. Stella By Starlight / On Green Dolphin Street 7. Red Clay - (previously unreleased) / Untitled - (hidden track)
1. Rain Dance 2. Watermelon Man 3. Butterfly 4. Death Wish (Main Title) 5. Actual Proof 6. Sun Touch 7. 4 AM 8. Come Running To Me 9. People Music
DISC 4: 1. Chameleon 2. Stars In Your Eyes 3. Rockit 4. Calypso 5. Satisfied With Love 6. Karabali 7. Spider 8. Nobu
9. Maiden Voyage / P. Bop
Personnel: Herbie Hancock (piano, Yamaha electric grand piano, Fender Rhodes electric piano, keyboards, Mini Moog, vocoder, synthesizer); Bobby McFerrin, Gavin Christopher (vocals); Benny Maupin (soprano saxophone, saxello, flute); Wayne Shorter (tenor saxophone); Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis (trumpet); Julian Priester (alto trombone); Chick Corea (piano); Patrick Gleeson (ARP 2600 synthesizer, Fundi Random resonator); Lee Ritenour, Ray Parker Jr. (guitar); Buster Williams (acoustic bass); Ron Carter (bass); Paul Jackson (electric bass); Tony Williams, Billy Hart, Mike Clark, Harvey Mason (drums); Bill Summers, Kenneth Nash, Sheila Escovedo (percussion); Maxine Waters, Julia Waters (background vocals)