Herbie Hancock has been one of the most respected figures in jazz over the last 40 years. He has also been one of the most reviled for his wanderings into funk, soul, and electronic jazz. A “best of” compilation recently released by Columbia/Legacy illustrates the best and the worst of Hancock’s musical legacy.
Hancock’s musical legacy began taking form when he soloed with the Chicago Symphony at the age of 11. He joined Donald Byrd’s quartet at the age of 21 and a few years later began a five-year stint with his mentor and primary stylistic influence, Miles Davis. Hancock spent five years with Davis while he developed his own distinctive keyboard style. Davis’ influence was undoubtedly part of Hancock’s move away from traditional acoustic jazz toward electronic funk in the early ‘70s. Hancock’s abandonment of traditional acoustic jazz forms culminated in his 1973 funk-jazz fusion album Headhunters. Although Hancock would make several forays back into acoustic jazz in the ensuing decades his reputation would forever be muddied in the traditional jazz world. After Headhunters there would be no turning back.
The Best of Herbie Hancock: The Hits! begins with two tracks off of this genre-busting album and they retain the same funky charm that they had 27 years ago. “Chameleon,” the almost 16 minute magnum opus off of Headhunters, steals blatantly from the rhythm track of Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” but nonetheless creates a blueprint for the direction of electronic jazz over the next 20 years. Derivative, indulgent and at times almost silly in its weird mutation of jazz, funk and soul-the song remains somehow powerfully hypnotic and fresh. “Watermelon Man”, the second Headhunters track featured on this compilation, is a remake of a tune Hancock had composed years earlier during his acoustic phase. This version features a loping base line under some piercing electronic keyboard work by Hancock and, while not as influential as “Chameleon,” remains the best track from Headhunters.
The rest of this compilation features tracks off of Hancock’s other ‘70s and ‘80s solo albums up to his surprise hit single “Rockit” in 1983. It is during this period between Headhunters and Rockit that things get ugly. And I mean UGLY.
Even the CD’s liner notes refer to the time between 1973 and 1983 as Hancock’s “lost” period (though the notes then try to dismiss that notion). Unfortunately they were right the first time. The next six tracks document Hancock’s descent into formulaic R&B crooning (yes, Hancock sings, although usually with the aid of a vocoder) and wretched disco dance tracks. (If you think that “wretched disco” is an oxymoron then you have not heard Hancock’s “Ready or Not” which will make you long for a 20-minute version of “It’s Raining Men”.) The tracks are not only overtly derivative of every horrible trend in popular music during this period they are boringly derivative. In other words Hancock isn’t screwing around with our perceptions of certain genres of music as he was doing on Headhunters. In these ‘70s period tracks he is blatantly trying to copy trends and failing in an embarrassing and appalling way.
The compilation ends with the aforementioned hip-hop/techno instrumental “Rockit” which is as disarmingly catchy and influential as “Chameleon” was ten years before. “Rockit” once again presents a Hancock that is ahead of the curve. His combination of scratching, electronic drums and synthesized keyboards set the blueprint for hip-hop, rap and much of pop music for the next five years. Listening to the track 17 years after its initial release, it does not hold up as well as the Headhunters tracks primarily because the Rockit sound has been pilfered, filtered and altered hundreds of times by dozens of artists in the ensuing years. Overall, this compilation is an incredibly erratic representation of Hancock’s career. Columbia/Legacy has chosen not to reissue the ‘70s period albums that are represented by the most abysmal tracks on the compilation. Why? Undoubtedly because they know they are artistically suspect and commercially unviable so they have sandwiched the worst of Hancock between the best tracks from Headhunters and Rockit. This is not a particularly surprising record company gambit but one for which consumers shouldn’t fall.
Columbia/Legacy did see fit however to reissue Hancock’s supposed “techno-trilogy” of CDs—Future Shock (1983), Sound System (1984) and Perfect Machine (1988). “Rockit” is the featured track off of the Future Shock CD and it sets the tone for the rest of the trilogy. Hancock uses the ensuing tracks on Future Shock to explore his interest in electronics and computerized instrumentation. None of tracks are the equal of “Rockit” while plowing virtually the same ground and the effect is somewhat numbing. Sound System is a virtual twin of Future Shock and Hancock seems to be merely repeating himself for commercial reasons.
Perfect Machine breaks away from the electronic hip-hop sound established by “Rockit” (probably because that sound had become seriously dated by 1988) and actually moves closer to a sound reminiscent of Headhunters. Electronics are still very much in evidence on this CD but Hancock moves to a more humanistic sound with the help of Bootsy Collins (Parliament, Funkadelic) on guitar and Sugarfoot (Ohio Players) supplying vocals. The result is not groundbreaking but a nice balance between his earlier electronic funk and his later hip-hop sound.
In the end the “techno-trilogy” becomes boring and repetitive over the course of the three discs. Hancock’s virtually total abandonment of melody for the first two CDs make them interesting but ultimately hollow experiments. Only Perfect Machine is worthy of repeated listenings, but even it is not particularly engaging.
For those that are interested in this period of Herbie Hancock’s career here is my advice to you. Buy the remastered version of Headhunters that was released several years ago and search out one of the many “Best of the Eighties” compilations that feature the single version of “Rockit.” If you do this then you will truly own the “best” of the electronic Herbie Hancock without subjecting yourself to some of the worst work in his discography.