Herbie Hancock may just be the most comfortable performer ever with the jazz dichotomy between the funky, earthy, gospel-influenced and the lyrical, abstract. He’s balanced the two admirably since his first recording for the Blue Note Label, Takin’Off, recorded in 1962. At that time he had already penned the funky “Watermelon Man”, a track so funky it continues to pop up in commercials and as a sample on hip-hop records, yet he went on to the gorgeous impressionism of “Maiden Voyage” and the entire Empyrean Isles album. The only musician as comfortable with this dichotomy was Hancock’s mid-‘60s employer, Miles Davis. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that Hancock has long been a practicing Buddhist, and he understands the necessity of abandoning expectations about how things should be. Whatever the reason, Herbie Hancock has been able to inhabit various spheres of the musical universe at the same time: jazz musician and pop musician, electric and acoustic, structured and unstructured.
The Herbie Hancock Box, a four-CD set that examines the totality of Hancock’s work on the Columbia label, gives good insight into just how varied the keyboardist’s output has been. Much of the first two discs draw on the late ‘70s/early ‘80s work done with VSOP, essentially a recreation of Miles Davis’ second great quintet from the ‘60s with Freddie Hubbard substituted for Davis. There is also solo piano work and a duet with Chick Corea. The third disc focuses more heavily on Hancock’s electric work with a variety of bands from his Mawandishi sextet to Headhunters and beyond. The final disc is meant to present the music of Hancock that has most directly influenced other trends in modern music, such as his groundbreaking single “Rockit”. The set isn’t chronological, instead grouping Hancock’s music into blocks that are similar in mood or in style. It’s an impressive array of music, and as long as the listener isn’t coming to this purely as a jazz listener or (less likely) a rock or techno listener, it provides an outstanding opportunity to sample Hancock’s work through the ‘70s and ‘80s. One caveat: the package design is no doubt meant to reflect the futuristic nature of Hancock’s work, but it is a real annoyance. The discs and accompanying booklet are enclosed in an acrylic box that has slots into which each disc is supposed to slide, making them look like they are suspended. It’s a cool effect, but it’s impossible to open the thing without knocking the discs out of their slots and against each other. I took the discs out and put them into four slim cases and found that much easier to handle.
The second great Miles Davis quintet (comprised of Davis, Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams) is now considered one of Davis’ best and most influential groups. But in the decade or so after their recordings (1965-1968), they were largely ignored in the hubbub that surrounded Davis’ electric work. VSOP was originally part of a tribute to the music of Herbie Hancock for the Newport/New York Jazz Festival. Hancock asked Davis about performing with the group, and Miles initially said yes, then thought better of it. “How do you think that would be, to be a sideman for one of my sidemen? That’d be a little funny” was Davis’ response. It’s interesting, though, that the year VSOP first appeared, 1976, was the beginning of Miles’ self-imposed exile from the music scene. The group ended up touring and recording repeatedly between 1976-1979. This not only caused a reevaluation of the music of the second great quintet, but provided an alternative model for up and coming musicians who were not interested in pursuing the electric and fusion directions that Miles and Herbie had helped create. VSOP demonstrated that there was still a market for acoustic jazz, and for the rhythm section played on Wynton Marsalis’ debut album, which Hancock produced. In short, the second great quintet eventually made the impression it should have the first time around and allowed the New Traditionalists to pretend that fusion had never happened. Neat trick, huh?
The leadoff tune is “Maiden Voyage”, after a brief solo introduction by Herbie. The inclusion of Freddie Hubbard on trumpet is a natural since Hubbard was recording with the group, sans Shorter, on Hancock’s early Blue Note sessions. The tunes are mostly Hancock’s, with the exception of “The Sorcerer”, recorded as a quartet with Wynton Marsalis on trumpet. It’s great to hear these guys playing together again, but the band sometimes seems to be a little overly tight, devoid of the risk taking and abstraction that defined Miles’ quintet. It’s likely the live recording that creates what seems like a distance between the musicians on many of these tracks, a distance that didn’t exist on those older recordings. Not to mention the fact that the group had been playing these songs in some form for over a decade by the time these recordings were made.
Still, overall, the performances are all top drawer, and it’s really heartening to be reminded of why everyone got so excited about Freddie Hubbard as well. This set also offers a nice selection of material currently only available as pricey imports from Sony Japan. “Para Oriente”, a Tony Williams composition from the import-only Live under the Sky, gets a really funky reading here and is reminiscent of this group at their best. “Listening to this piece . . . I’m aware of the overlap between the electric music most of us had been playing, as we returned to the acoustic style. . . . We were playing funk and we were dealing with rock and R&B energies. So, when we turned once again to acoustic music, the energy of VSOP reflected all that”, says Hancock in his liner notes. “Harvest Time”, a solo piece from The Piano is harmonically and melodically gorgeous, and was co-written by Hancock’s younger sister, Jean. We also get fantastic performances of Wayne Shorter’s “Diana” from VSOP: Tempest in the Colosseum and an incendiary “The Eye of the Hurricane”. And that’s just disc 1.
The second disc mines many of these same obscure albums, offering the funky Ron Carter/Miles Davis composition “Eighty-one” originally featured on Davis’ ESP album. There’s also some nice trio work and a piano duo with Chick Corea on “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” and a previously unreleased version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” recorded in 1977. So packed with goodies are these first two discs that had Columbia decided to simply release these as a VSOP or acoustic Hancock retrospective, one could scarcely have complained.
Hancock’s Mwandishi sextet (so-called because each of the musicians took an African name, Mwandishi being Herbie’s) became a pretty avant-garde group, though the rhythmic basis they always used for their compositions provided more grounding than the typical free-jazz group. Most of their output was done on the Warner Brothers label, but their last, Sextant, was done for Columbia, and their song “Rain Dance” leads off the third disc. It perfectly summarizes the dialectic between the earthy and the abstract, as an initial repetitive synthesizer figure (along with some hand clapping) provides the beat while the horn players and Hancock improvise freely, both harmonically and rhythmically. I’ve always wondered where the Mwandishi concept might have led had Hancock continued to explore it.
There’s also a reworking of Hancock’s original groundbreaking composition “Watermelon Man” which was featured on the Headhunters album. “Chameleon” is here also, sounding every bit as booty-shaking as it did back in 1973 when it was originally released. At the time Miles Davis was about to go into five years of semi-retirement and had not yet made the straight-ahead funk album he had been trying to make. He ended up opening for Hancock’s Headhunters on a series of gigs, which must have been a tough pill to swallow. Headhunters also marked the start of Hancock’s split personality. From that point on his career would be split between his straightforward jazz work (with VSOP and in various quartet, trio, solo, and duo lineups) and his more pop-oriented work. Unfortunately, jazz musicians and critics didn’t cut him any slack in that area. When asked why people were accepting of the music of Earth, Wind, and Fire than with some of Hancock’s similar tunes (like “Sun Touch” and “Come Running to Me”, both included here), his response was telling: “I had built up a core jazz audience. Maurice White had been the drummer in the Ramsey Lewis Trio; but it had little carry-over when he started his own band. My jazz history was longer and stronger . . . so people will always bring that context to the music rather than hearing it for what it is. If I step outside the box, I’m still getting evaluated from inside the box.”
One group of folks who evaluated Herbie from outside the jazz box were the up-and-coming musicians, producers, and DJs who would be influential on the electronic music scene of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Just as Miles Davis managed to influence later musical trends such as ambient or drum ‘n’ bass, so did Hancock. The work with producer Bill Laswell, developed over the course of the albums Future Shock, Sound System, and Perfect Machine is represented on Disc 4 with the selections “Rockit”, “Karabali”, and “Maiden Voyage/P.Bop”. “Rockit” sounds a little dated, with its scratch turntable work and early hip-hop dynamics, and seems to have been heavily influenced by Afrikka Bambata’s seminal “Planet Rock”, which was recorded the year before. “Karabali”, on the other hand, features Cuban drummer Daniel Ponce and Wayne Shorter as well as Hancock on acoustic piano, providing an organic overlay to the techno beats. “Maiden Voyage/P. Bop” puts a hip-hop spin on one of Hancock’s classic compositions and features bassist Bootsy Collins. Unlike Miles Davis, Herbie doesn’t object to revisiting his earlier music, but, as he points out “If you’re going to do the older tunes, you want to re-invent them, not re-make them.”
Overall, The Herbie Hancock Box is a thoroughly enjoyable experience, but I have to wonder just who the folks are that are going to purchase this collection. While most of the music is wonderful and thoroughly enjoyable, it’s hard to imagine a lot of fans of Herbie’s early Blue Note work or the VSOP recordings to shell out for two discs that feature music they aren’t too interested in. Similarly, fans of Hancock’s electric work aren’t likely to be excited by the small group post-bop jazz stuff. Let’s face it, Hancock could have made things much easier on himself by either refusing to revisit his earlier, jazz incarnation or by going back there and pretending the electronic stuff was just a stylistic aberration imposed by the times (“hey, everyone was doing it”). It is to his credit that he has done neither, creating both fans and detractors in both camps. Ultimately, the keyboardist has pulled off something even the great Miles Davis found impossible: he’s been able to reconcile his past, present, and future into one body of work with which he is completely comfortable. The fact that others may not be comfortable with it, or that his record company finds it hard to market his shifting styles doesn’t seem to bother him, and that’s as it should be for a truly creative artist.