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Herbie Hancock: An Essential Top Ten Albums

Herbie Hancock: An Essential Top Ten Albums

Courtesy Dave Kaufman

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‘Watermelon Man’ is what Creedence Clearwater Revival could have sounded like had they been a hard-bop band chooglin’ out of Chicago in 1962. But Hancock has since been through so many transformations that his blues and gospel-soaked Americana beginnings are sometimes passed over.
The title of Herbie Hancock's 1973 hit single "Chameleon," pulled from his jazz-funk monster Head Hunters (Columbia), was an apt one. Hancock had already undergone several transformations: from the blues-and-gospel-infused vibe of his Blue Note debut, Takin' Off (1962), to more experimentally inclined Blue Note albums in the mid-to-late 1960s, and on to his early 1970s sextet Mwandishi, once dubbed "the thinking fan's fusion band."

Along the way, as a member of Miles Davis' so-called "second great quintet" from 1965 to 1968 and of his turn of the decade electric bands, Hancock had also essayed some of the ugly attention-seeking chromaticism which Davis adopted from this point onwards. Hancock has frequently acknowledged the positive aspects of his association Davis but, tellingly, he has only rarely brought abstraction into his own work.

Hancock's chameleon-like shifts did not stop with Head Hunters. In the 1980s and 1990s, he made several forays into electro-funk and hip-hop, and can be credited with brokering the marriage between jazz and hip hop with his 1983 Columbia album, Future Shock, and its hit single "Rockit." During these plugged-in years, Hancock also kept acoustic jazz on the backburner with his V.S.O.P. bands, and dabbled in film soundtracks and straightforward pop projects.

More recently, as a sideman, in 2014 Hancock played keyboards on two tracks on Flying Lotus' so hip it hurts You're Dead! (Warp). And on the acoustic front, in 2017, he guested, along with his longtime associate Wayne Shorter, on the Robert Glasper-produced Blue Note All-Stars album Our Point Of View, contributing a fresh and exciting, extended version of Shorter's "Masquelero," which the duo first recorded on Miles Davis' Sorcerer (Columbia, 1967).

So how to compress such a distinguished and prolific six-decade history of performing—and composing—into a list of ten essential albums? Not easily. But by keeping the focus resolutely on Hancock's most innovative, jazz-centric and enduring work, it is also easier than might at first be imagined. Anyway, here goes...

Ten Essential Herbie Hancock Albums

This is a starter selection. Hancock initiates will likely be familiar with most, if not all, of these discs. But, hopefully, the list might trigger overdue returns to one or two favourites. If so, the time will be well spent: every one of these albums is a guaranteed, 360-degree, Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, deep-strata stone killer.

Herbie Hancock
Takin' Off
Blue Note, 1962

Hancock has been through so many style transformations that it is sometimes forgotten that his first own-name album, recorded when he was 22 years old, is a solid slice of blues-and-gospel-infused hard bop Americana. Yes, Takin' Off is the album that opens with the seven-minute romp that is "Watermelon Man," the track that Creedence Clearwater Revival might have sounded like had they been a hard bop band chooglin' out of Chicago in 1962. Hancock fronts a cooking quintet completed by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, bassist Butch Warren and drummer Billy Higgins. Gordon, at the time enjoying a renaissance, glories in his big, bold, bar-walking sound, which is matched by Hubbard's high-vaultage exuberance. There are six tracks, all Hancock originals, on the LP, and numbers two to five follow, more or less, in "Watermelon"'s footsteps: "Three Bags Full" is a gritty waltz; "Empty Pockets," a blues; "The Maze," sharp as an open razor; "Driftin,'" long, tall and loping. Everyone cools down for the closer, the wistful "Alone And I." Rather spookily, Leonard Feather's liner notes refer to the album as Hancock's "maiden voyage."

Grant Green
Feelin' The Spirit
Blue Note, 1963

Feelin' The Spirit, though released under Grant Green's name, is more of the same with knobs on. Six months after the Takin' Off session, someone, presumably Blue Note's Alfred Lion, had the inspired idea of getting Hancock, Warren and Higgins back in the studio, without any horns, for an album of traditional African American spirituals. There were five tracks on the original release—"Just A Closer Walk With Thee," "Joshua Fit De Battle Ob Jericho" (that's how they spelled it), "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen," "Go Down Moses" and "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child"—all of which Green approaches in his trademark blues and gospel style. In Hancock, who solos on all but "Trouble I've Seen" (at six minutes the shortest track), and almost certainly had a hand in the arrangements, he has a profoundly on-message fellow traveller. The tension builds so high on the closing "Motherless Child" that in bar thirty of Hancock's solo, Higgins, who up to that point has been a well-behaved pulse keeper, content to tick off the beats, drops a bomb in what sounds like an involuntary attempt to relieve the pressure. Garvin Masseaux is added on tambourine on three tracks. It is all glorious stuff. Along with Idle Moments (Blue Note, 1965), Feelin' The Spirit is one of Green's greatest discs. It is a fine addition to Hancock's archive, too, albeit that it finds him in a sideman role.

Herbie Hancock
My Point Of View
Blue Note, 1963

Press play for track one, "Blind Man, Blind Man," and it sounds like Hancock's own-name sophomore album is going to be a reprise of Takin' Off and Feelin' The Spirit. "Blind Man" is in that same bag, and so is closer "And What If I Don't," and if Hancock and Blue Note are patently trying for another hit of "Watermelon Man" proportions, that does not detract from the tracks' appeal one jot. But My Point Of View is more complex in conception, and the material more varied, than those two tunes alone suggest. An entirely new lineup, saving for Grant Green, who is heard to great effect on "Blind Man," has Hancock fronting a septet completed by trumpeter Donald Byrd, trombonist Grachan Moncur III, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, bassist Chuck Israels and 17-year-old drummer Tony Williams, Hancock's future colleague in the Davis quintet. Hancock relishes the textural opportunities offered by a three-horn front line, and the upbeat "King Cobra" and ballad "The Pleasure Is Mine" (all the five tunes are Hancock originals) have rich but uncluttered arrangements. Towards its end, "Cobra" also raises the curtain on the rhythmic magic Williams was about to bring to the Davis group, and there are moments in Hancock's solo on "Pleasure" where he and Israels evoke Israels' work in pianist Bill Evans' trio.

Herbie Hancock
Empyrean Isles
Blue Note, 1964

Hancock followed My Point Of View with two explicitly experimental albums, Inventions & Dimensions (Blue Note, 1964) and Empyrean Isles. Both are excellent, but Empyrean Isles wins the cigar. Ten months separated the recording of the discs, during which time Hancock's musical education benefited from his membership of the hot house that was Miles Davis's quintet. Something else going for Empyrean Isles is the personnel: Hancock had been playing with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams in Davis's band for over a year and the three musicians are a tight knit team. The fourth member of the group is trumpeter Freddie Hubbard (actually on cornet here), no stranger to the conclave and in all his pre-fusion glory. There are four tracks with four distinct characters. "Cantaloupe Island," at 5:30 the shortest track, follows on from "Watermelon Man" and "Blind Man, Blind Man." "One Finger Snap" is steaming post-bop. "Oliloqui Valley" goes modal. The closer, "The Egg," the most abstract and at 13:57 the longest track, is a series of freely improvised solos based on the sketchiest of opening motifs. Even here, the musicians remain lyrical, improvising around a tonal centre.

Herbie Hancock
Maiden Voyage
Blue Note, 1965

Nine months later, the Empyrean Isles quartet reassembled for Maiden Voyage. The lineup is augmented by tenor saxophonist George Coleman, who had also been a member of the Miles Davis quintet until he quit in the face of Tony Williams' hostility and Davis's erratic payslips. Coleman is at his exquisite, muscular best throughout. Ditto Hubbard, and indeed the rest of the band. The album is a suite in five parts. The measured and burnished first, third and fifth parts— "Maiden Voyage," "Little One," "Dolphin Dance"—separated by the faster, eruptive second and fourth parts—"The Eye Of The Hurricane" (a misnomer if ever there was one) and "Survival Of The Fittest." "Little One" had already been recorded by Davis's quintet for ESP (Columbia, 1965), but here receives a more suitable reading, particularly by Hubbard, whose bubbly lyricism sits with the tune better than Davis's angsty tics. An almost universally feted album and rightly so.

Wayne Shorter
Adam's Apple
Blue Note, 1967

Hancock played on four of Wayne Shorter's Blue Note albums during the 1960s, including the quintet masterpiece Speak No Evil (1966). Adam's Apple, which included the first recording of Shorter's "Footprints," runs it a close second, and because it is quartet recording Hancock, in blinding form, is more prominent within it. The original LP had six Shorter originals, ranging from a funky vamp ("Adam's Apple"), the Latin ("El Gaucho"), through the buoyant "Footprints" and exquisite ballad ("Teu") to John Coltrane-esque assertiveness ("Chief Crazy Horse"). There is one cover, of Jimmy Rowles' dreamy "502 Blues." The album's Rudy Van Gelder remaster CD also includes a Hancock tune, "The Collector," recorded during the same sessions. Fast, staccato and astringent, it is terrific music, but it does not sit easily with the prevailing lyrical mood and, given LP playing-time constraints, it is no surprise that it was the track selected for the cutting floor. The bassist is Reggie Workman and the drummer Joe Chambers. Much has been written about Tony Williams's near telepathic relationship with Hancock, and far less about that of Chambers. However, throughout Adam's Apple and on Hancock's solo on "The Collector" in particular, Chambers is in perfect, at times anticipatory, synch with the pianist.

Herbie Hancock
Speak Like A Child
Blue Note, 1968

If Hancock had ever recorded an album for producer Creed Taylor's CTI label, Speak Like A Child is what it might have sounded like. It was actually produced by Duke Pearson, Alfred Lion having retired from Blue Note by 1968. Except for Ron Carter the lineup is a new one and is an unusually composed sextet. There are three horns—flugelhornist Thad Jones, bass trombonist Peter Phillips and alto flautist Jerry Dodgion—and the drummer is Mickey Roker. Hancock is the only soloist. The sound is sumptuous, the vibe gentle and the overall effect restorative. Hancock revisits two of his pieces previously recorded with Miles Davis: "Riot," from Nefertiti (Columbia, 1968), and "The Sorcerer," from Sorcerer (Columbia, 1967). Both are given imaginative rearrangements. (In 1968, the Davis quintet also recorded "Speak Like A Child," but the track was not released until 1998 on Columbia's The Complete Studio Recordings Of The Miles Davis Quintet 1965-1968 box set.) There are three new Hancock tunes, the title track, "Toys" and "Goodbye To Childhood," and Carter's "First Trip." The cover photo, incidentally, is of Hancock and his then fiancée, Gigi Meixner, who are still together in 2022.

Herbie Hancock
The Prisoner
Blue Note, 1969

The relatively little known The Prisoner, the final album Hancock made for Blue Note, and like Speak Like A Child produced by Duke Pearson, deserves a place in the sun rather than the shadows. Hancock conceived the album as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, who had been assassinated in April 1968, almost exactly a year to the day before the recording sessions. Strikingly arranged for a nonet, the collective lineup comprises Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone and alto flute, Jerome Richardson on bass clarinet and flute, Hubert Laws on flute, Romeo Penque on bass clarinet, Johnny Coles on flugelhorn, Garnett Jnr Brown on trombone, Tony Studd and Jack Jeffers on bass trombone, Buster Williams on bass and Albert Tootie Heath on drums. The presence of Coles and the use of bass trombones have inevitably led to comparisons with Gil Evans' work. In reality, Hancock's orchestrations have considerably more sinew than those generally employed by Evans, and Williams and Heath are a gym-ripped bass and drums team. The opener, and at 10:58 the longest track, "I Have A Dream," sets the dignified and sombre tone of the album, and includes poignant solos from Hancock, Coles and Henderson, who shine throughout.

Herbie Hancock
Head Hunters
Columbia, 1973

Quite why Hancock's Head Hunters still sounds fresh in 2022, while his equally impactful Future Shock (Columbia), which brokered the marriage of jazz and hip hop in 1983, sounds so passé, is debatable. One reason may be that anything from the 1980s produced by or closely involving Bill Laswell and his associates, as was Future Shock, was so achingly on trend that it began to lose value as soon as it was driven out of the showroom. Whatever. The fact remains that Head Hunters sounded like a masterpiece in 1973 and it still does almost fifty years later; similarly, its hit single, an edit of the 15:41 keyboard-vamp and bass-ostinato driven opener, "Chameleon," continues to fill dancefloors (and engage the brain) while Future Shock's "Rockit" is thin gruel of mainly archaeological interest. Hancock also ensured that Head Hunters was perceived as part of his lineage by including a revamp of "Watermelon Man." There is, of course, plenty of overdubbing, but only five musicians are involved: Hancock on Fender Rhodes, Hohner D6 Clavinet and synths, Bennie Maupin on tenor and soprano saxophones, saxello, bass clarinet and alto flute, Paul Jackson on electric bass and Marimbula, Harvey Mason on drums and Bill Summers on percussion.

Herbie Hancock
Gershwin's World
Verve, 1998

Hancock is still credibly bringing the funk forty-five years after Head Hunters with Gershwin's World's reimagining of W.C. Handy's "St Louis Blues." The track features Stevie Wonder on vocals and harmonica together with Hancock on acoustic piano and organ, Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Alex Al on bass and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums. As well as Handy, the album, primarily a collection of George and Ira Gershwin evergreens, touches on other musics and composers, notably classical (the second movement from Maurice Ravel's "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G") and Ellingtonia (Duke Ellington's "Cotton Tail"). Other featured vocalists include Joni Mitchell, whose songs Hancock would celebrate in 2007 on the instrumental album River: The Joni Letters (Verve). The cast of thousands also includes alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, tenor and soprano saxophonists Wayne Shorter and James Carter and bassist Ira Coleman. Chick Corea joins Hancock for James P. Johnson's "Blueberry Rhyme."

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