Herbie Hancock is one of the most influential pianists in American music, one of a handful of great contemporary jazz composers, and also a significant figure in American pop music. His career, beginning as a sideman with trumpeters Donald Byrd and then—essentially—Miles Davis in the early 1960s and still ongoing today, is a huge subject for any one album.
So Sony/Legacy has granted itself two discs for this anthology, and they’ve done a fine job with it. But who could have done worse? It starts with his early funky-jazz stuff—most notably “Watermelon Man” from his Blue Note debut—touches down on sideman gigs with Sonny Rollins (“Round Midnight”) and Miles (“Circles”), then follows him through the tonal experiments of his early electric years, the mature Head Hunters band, and into some select tracks from his silly electric records from the later ‘70s. Then his era-defining ‘80s hit “Rockit”. After that there are several more random choices from live concerts and from his recent theme records of Gershwin and New Standards, but the bulk of what’s here could have been chosen by an undergrad with “Jazz History 101” under her belt. But, of course, that’s the point: Herbie Hancock is a huge enough talent that his classic recording are iconic. You’re going to skip “Maiden Voyage” or “Chameleon”? I don’t think so.
Most of the record is a slam dunk-a-roo, and I won’t bother telling you why “Cantaloupe Island” or Herbie’s Speak Like a Child version of “The Sorcerer” are essential listening. If you are a jazz nut, you’ve already got this stuff and might want this for your car. If you don’t know Mr. Hancock, then jump on board.
For many Herbie Hancock enthusiasts, however, this anthology provides the chance to weigh in with a second opinion on material we had overlooked or dismissed amidst the wash of style-defining classics. The first taste treat is the 1964 version of “Round Midnight” from Sonny Rollins’ oft-overlooked Now’s the Time on RCA. Herbie was thick in the flush of playing with Miles when this was recorded, and he’s joined in the rhythm section here by Miles-mate Ron Carter. As you would expect, the harmonic accompaniment to Sonny’s mature ruminations is lush and provocative—a reminder that Mr. Hancock brought as much to Miles’ ‘60s conception as the leader himself. The piano solos are spacious and painterly.
The first sign of Hancock the commercial artist appears in “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” from Fat Albert Rotunda. It’s not merely that Herbie is playing his beloved Fender Rhodes electric piano, but that he has composed and brilliantly arranged a hip, catchy song for a TV show soundtrack. Like the early funk-jazz hits, this tune works on a pop level and a jazz level. In this end, this is what might be Mr. Hancock’s most singular genius: he is able to use the rich array of jazz ideas (rhythmic, harmonic, arranging/orchestration, improvisational) to speak directly to a pop listener. “Bedtime Story” boasts a sophisticated jazz melody, but its combination of sounds (flute and flugelhorn tangled in harmony, Rhodes pulsing with trombone, a killer percussion team of Albert Heath and Billy Hart playing, essentially, very hip rock ‘n’ roll) sells it like a spoonful of sugar.
“Joanna’s Theme” from the Death Wish soundtrack does not fare half as well. The Headhunters rhythm section backs a sweet acoustic solo from Herbie, but the chuck-a guitar and orchestra (not arranged by Mr. Hancock) highjack most of the track. The same band playing “Chameleon” and “Butterfly” (the latter from the under-rated Thrust album of 1974) is dirty and polyrhythmic in the extreme, laying beat against beat, then setting the table for a Rhodes solo from Herbie that is as “jazz” as anything Blue Note ever recorded.
The electric material that follows is a mixed bag, but consistently surprising at the level of arrangement. Both “People Music” and “4 A.M.” (from 1980’s Mr. Hands) feature Jaco Pastorius on bass, dueling with Mr. Hancock’s banks of keyboards on the heads. As with so much of the fusion from this era, the synthesizers sound dated, but the way Herbie employs them to orchestrate his ideas does not. On both tracks, however, the serious business is done, again, on the Rhodes, a flawed and quirky instrument that Herbie lifts to heights most Stradivarius violins would be lucky to experience. The second tune alone would have sufficed, as it lets Mr. Pastorius get down with his trademark form of trebly, bobbing electric bass.
More interesting and more weird is the selection Legacy has made from 1978’s album Sunlight. This was, you may recall, a year after Peter Frampton had “Come Alive” with a series of famously soft guitar solos featuring the “vocoder”, a strange device that allowed him to sing words through the notes of his guitar playing. “Come Running” features a vocoder too, so you’re excused if you want to pass the tune by. But you shouldn’t. In fact, this track is a significant revelation—a small pop symphony of shifting riffs, gurgling percussion patterns, sly textures, brilliant combinations of high and low reed voicings, and another dastardly-great Rhodes solo. You can chuckle all you want about the vocoder, but “Come Running” goes through more hip moves than James Brown at the Apollo, and it is a surprise masterpiece of pop arrangement and composition.
The same cannot be said for “Stars in Your Eyes”, a forgettable funk vocal for Greg Walker (who?) off of Monster from 1980. It’s hard to know whether to deduct points for its inclusion or credit Legacy with honesty: much of Herbie’s pop output in the 1980s was a kind of crossover embarrassment.
Yet there were still surprises left. In addition to the pleasing shock of Mr. Hancock’s famous hip-hop success with 1983’s “Rockit”, he was making high quality acoustic jazz still. Few have heard all the excellent music made by the VSOP quintet (Herbie, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams) after its first two discs, as Columbia released most of this stuff only in Japan. Why? I can only assume that the great record company’s cynicism about the US jazz market suggested that 220 million people would not simultaneously purchase albums by both Wynton Marsalis and an acoustic Herbie. Perhaps Columbia saw it as a zero sum game in which every VSOP record sale would result in fewer sales for Think of One. But the 1979 recording of Mr. Hancock’s “Finger Painting” suggests that Columbia robbed us of some great music. This is a new Hancock original, and a lovely one, that deploys the considerable colors of this all-star band in perfect ways. The recording quality achieved in Sony’s Tokyo studios is questionable, with Mr. Carter’s bass buzzing unpleasantly and the piano sounding washed out, and you wonder why a band of this stature wasn’t given access to the legendary Manhattan studios of the world’s most esteemed record company. But, regardless, this is a treasure. Less singular is the VSOP trio playing the Davis tune “Milestones”. Still: you’ll want to hear it.
Finally, the collection ends with two of Mr. Hancock’s most recent acoustic sessions, music that has a strange, transparent quality that pales against “Watermelon Man” and “Come Running to Me”. The “St. Louis Blues” here is from the Gershwin’s World disc on Verve, and it feels hollow despite featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica and mostly-wordless vocal. Just as on Mr. Hancock’s most recent Possibilities disc, the pianist is deployed as sideman on his own work, sounding like a fancy visitor who isn’t at the center of the music. The last track, “Manhattan”, is a rare piano solo from the great man, off of the New Standard recording of 1995. It has the elegiac feeling of a man playing later in his life, and that sense of Mr. Hancock’s recent transparency continues. Lovely (and maybe akin to the impressionism of “Maiden Voyage” and the “Round Midnight” accompaniment?), it makes you wonder if this consistently fine and surprising musician is sliding into senior status or—maybe? (thump-thump of heartbeat)—planning his next genre-defining move.
More to come? Until we find out, The Essential Herbie Hancock makes the case that era between 1962 and 1983 was a considerably richer time because of this visionary artist.