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Herbie Hancock: VSOP Live Under The Sky and The Piano

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Strange, sometimes, an artist's need to revisit his creative past and experiment with the new technologies of the present, both within a short period of time.

These two Herbie Hancock albums, recorded in the late seventies, are oppositional concepts—the VSOP date from Tokyo, a reunion of Miles Davis' second great quintet, with Freddie Hubbard replacing Davis on trumpet, The Piano a footnote experiment in direct to disk recording, Hancock encrypting music at the most elemental level of sound preservation without the possibility of edits, overdubs, or re-sequencing. Both albums were previously released in Japan, and both are, from any angle we wish to approach them, lesser recordings in a discography as notable for its masterpieces as its inconsistency.

Herbie Hancock & V.S.O.P.
Live Under the Sky
Columbia Legacy
2004 (1979)

The VSOP session is nominally attributed to Hancock, but what we are reacting to is a live performance in which each of the players have a more or less an equal role. Culled from the band's July 26, 1979 set at Tokyo's Denon Colosseum, with ten tracks from the next night, Live Under The Sky is a flat, prolix affair, that risks little; one wonders what, if anything, this unit was attempting to accomplish. Japanese audiences have always seemed to put a premium on bombast with their musical idols, and examples of empty virtuosity—entire sides of LPs, triple disc set after triple disc set—are not uncommon, with some bands so popular in Japan that on occasion their albums are released there alone—almost like Western audiences wouldn't have such offerings from Western musicians. But the presence of virtuosos does not insure virtuoso performances—hence, the obvious letdown factor of the "supergroup" conceit—and it is an unsettling experience to listen to Wayne Shorter, whose solos are typically made of complex, interlocking, engaging lines, honking away on one note like someone run out of ideas— or someone whose passion for ideas is not responsive to the night's proceedings.

Judging from its frenzied response though, the crowd loves everything it hears, and just at the moment I am tempted to pull out a lighter and call out for "Moby Dick," it begins to make sense why bands like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin took so kindly to Japanese audiences. One might say that the best thing about Live Under The Sky is the quality of the recording itself; but a word of warning—the fidelity is fine, the sound balance less so. From the opening "The Eye of the Hurricane," with levels being appropriated, Ron Carter's bass is consigned, for the duration of the show, to sounding like it has been cut-in from a George Clinton session. As for Freddie Hubbard, with so much attention focused on the three men who had played with Davis—and maybe remembrances for Davis' own playing—he is predictably obscured, but acquits himself well. And if we to cater to such a silly notion as top solo honors, there is Hubbard's accelerated if not too nuanced attack on his own "One of Another Kind."

Herbie Hancock
The Piano
Columbia Legacy
2004 (1978)

Faring better is Hancock's solo piano disc, in which he displays his Harold Arlen touch. Ballyhooed as an important sonic innovation, direct to tape recording, as utilized by Hancock, is not a triumph of new forms and form manipulation—even minimalism—as I gather we are meant to believe. The pioneering work of Stan Brakhage, scratching his visions onto exposed film, is safe, especially if one is willing to acknowledge that the creation of a new mode of expression fosters art only when art could not have been realized—for that particular effort, at a pure level—otherwise. What endures though are the simple pleasures of The Piano , the feelings of a personal, private elegance—an artist at his core, engaged not with toil of his latest masterwork, but merely indulging his noble penchants.

VSOP Live Under The Sky

Personnel: Freddie Hubbard (t), Wayne Shorter (ts), Herbie Hancock (p), Ron Carter (b), Tony Williams (d).

Track Listing: Disc 1: Opening; Eye of the Hurricane; Tear Drops; Domo; Para Oriente; Pee Wee; One of Another Kind. Disc 2 (all previously unreleased): Opening; Eye of the Hurricane; Tear Drops; Domo; Para Oriente; Pee Wee; One of Another Kind; Fragile; Stella By Starlight; On Green Dolphin Street.

The Piano

Personnel: Herbie Hancock (p).

Track Listing: My Funny Valentine; On Green Dolphin Street; Someday My Prince Will Come; Harvest Time; Sonrisa; Manhattan Island; Blue Otani; My Funny Valentine (tk3 alternate); On Green Dolphin Street (tk2 alternate); Harvest Time (tk3 alternate); Someday My Prince Will Come (tk3 alternate)(tracks 8-11 previously unreleased).

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