The emphasis on Miles Davis's 1960s quintet as a role model for musicians in the present day has ensured perhaps that Herbie Hancock's move away from that band's style has been overlooked.
The two albums discussed here encapsulate how his musical outlook changed. The move from acoustic to predominantly electric instrumentation is profound enough in itself, but when -as in the cases discussed here- it;s accompanied by an equally significant shift in the very nature of the music then the change can realistically be called revolutionary.
Like many musicians of his generation Hancock served a solid apprenticeship with the likes of the Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams quintet before he became Davis's pianist. This, plus his working relationship with Blue Note -of which one of the albums discussed here is a product- ensured that he was destined to enjoy a long and fruitful career in the music.
Recorded in June of 1964, Empyrean Isles finds Hancock leading a quartet in which Freddie Hubbard's cornet is the only horn, and to a large extent it's the kind of date Blue Note excelled at. By the standards of the day it's neither conservative or radical, and perhaps its most important asset is the chance it provides to hear the rhythm section of Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and Tony Williams in the company of a trumpet/cornet player other than Davis. Hubbard makes the most of the opportunity, laying down some of his most effective playing on record, and whilst his preoccupation with conventional technique makes his playing more anonymous than Davis's, it's still pretty much state of the art. Great though these assets are, however, they'd not add up to much if it wasn't for the fact that Hancock's compostional rangeis exploratory at the same time as it allows for group expression.
The much sampled "Cantaloupe Island" exemplifies this as well as anything here, with the group working a personal seam within the funk vein that was becoming prominent, whilst "The Egg" finds Williams in particular echoing his work in more abstract realms. Some might argue, howeever, that Hancock's range here makes gauging his importance difficult.
By the time of Mwandishi , however, it's clear that Hancock's talents were of a serious order, and in the seven years between the two albums his abilities as a facilitator had also come to the fore. The music here is jazz-rock of an order that relies far more on group interaction than it does prolonged and ultimately empty soloing. In view of this "You'll Know When You Get There" is not only the title of one of the pieces on the album, it's also a loose manifesto for the six-piece group and the music they're performing. Although individual statements are an integral part of the music, the group's identity is the overriding concern throughout. Jazz-rock as an idiom would rarely acheive such heights of trenchant refinement again.
To return to the beginning, Herbie Hancock has assumed some of his status on the back of his association with Miles Davis, and to some degree at the expense of the rewarding music found on these two discs. A snapshot of a career can never be anything more than that, and the extent of his contribution to the music is belittled without consideration of his output as a whole.