Herbie Hancock: The Piano

Robert R. Calder

Herbie Hancock

The Piano

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2004-09-21
UK Release Date: 2004-09-20

Technology: Hancock's sometime-manager David Rubinson refers in a note to the era of vinyl recordings as prehistory. That it is not, since it is the earliest CDs which are approaching unplayability these days. In the booklet included within the mighty set of almost all Rachmaninov's recordings assembled by RCA long ago, there was a photo of something that looked almost geological or palaeontological, a huge lump encrusted in aluminum oxide which, when it was a lump of sheer aluminium like its core, had been a replayable disc. Slimmer, lighter, and no more useful are the CDs whose covering has been penetrated by what subsequently corroded them. But at least the CD revived the business of selling recorded music, and recording or unearthing and reissuing more to sell.

I am sure Mr. Rubinson wasn't going around in animal skins when the idea of a superhi-hi-fi disc -- produced by recording directly onto a master from which moulds were made from, rather than to tape and then from the tape to the master which moulds were then made from -- came into the failing market for vinyl recordings. It had taken fifty years before the performance-to-tape-to-commercially-reproducible-in-mass-quantities disc had been pretty well perfected. Another thirty or so, and the sales of these discs were dropping and novelties were sought in order to restore the market. The CD worked the trick, though as another quarter century has passed -- and technology has developed -- the issue of this particular CD carries an FBI badge and the warning that copying is illegal.

Before the CD worked, the trick was the very long play LP, one of which I possess. It is a twelve-inch black vinyl disc that plays for ninety minutes and is, I gather, much more prone to scratching, et cetera, than a normal forty-five minutes maximum LP.

There was also the top-end of the market direct-to-disc LP, which eschewed the use of tapes, as well as all of those amazing tricks which can be used with tape to cover slips and stumbles. The reasoning was that there was some loss of sound quality from having a tape between the performance and the disc from which the mould was made to press the copies intended for sale. The price would be high, but hi-fi had always been a sort-of cult, and some people absolutely have to have everything and a few of them have so much money and such good equipment that the small improvement in sound quality could actually be audible when playing the pricey disc, which - by the way -- could only be produced in limited quantities anyway.

Inside the Music: The direct-to-disc disadvantage not mentioned in this music CD, which was rescued from that ill-fated project, is that since mistakes aren't correctable, the temptation to play safe may also prove uncorrectable. Given the initial cost, though, only somebody very competent would ever have been recorded through these means. Herbie Hancock had to play a maximum of sixteen minutes music without a break, for each of the two sides of the disc, which was made in Japan for Japan. There's no note as to how many tries he had, but what comes out on the present CD is side one of the issued LP, containing three standards, followed by side two, with four Hancock tunes; and after that some separate items from other attempts.

It's all pretty good, and would sit well beside any solo piano recital recorded at Maybeck Hall for the Concord label, except that you get to hear Hancock start four of the tunes twice. The performances are not repetitions.

The blather that the three tunes together form a novel sort of suite ignores the fact that three-item suites were rather the norm with major solo pianists of an older generation still very active in 1978. Dave McKenna, the dreadfully underrecorded Ram Ramirez: they both strung pieces together, rather than introducing first one and then the next, et cetera, individually. I assume they had regular sequences (never saw them often enough!) and did different things from one night to the next, finding different relationships between the effect of "My Funny Valentine" and "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Someday My Prince Will Come" (if they ever played these as a threesome of standards). That, incidentally, is Hancock's standards threesome here, and because there is no information regarding on which attempt he succeeded in playing all three items to general satisfaction, you might jump to the wrong conclusions. You might assume that "Valentine" begins the way it does because of uncertainty, whereas it might well be that having played through the set at least once and having got something wrong, Hancock was pacing himself. This enforced an interesting shape, as he relaxes toward the end and works some alterations in pace during "Prince".

It's a somewhat relaxing and easy-paced threesome, this, with a calming effect that might be attributed to Hancock's having to be exceptionally steady in every way, though hardly dull. His own four compositions are the ballad "Harvest Time", "Sonrisa", "Manhattan Island" and "Blue Otani". The last of these is an interesting little blues number, a neat surprise turning virtuosity to some purpose. Maybe something extra did happen on the last recording of the group?

Then we have another "Valentine", not with the effect of the same thing again but actually like a second solo, as if that had been programmed in originally. There's soft pedal, fine dynamics, and what was presumably the opening tune of another attempt at all three is really opened out. Hearing this made me hear the whole lot differently again. "Green Dolphin Street", from a different rejected try at all three, has a remarkable harmonic phantasmagoria, laying down orchestration as accompaniment to what was being done with the theme. Whereas the spare "Valentine" was a minute and a quarter shorter, "Dolphin Street" adds half a minute. There's a nice sense of being unusually inside the music.

I was really intrigued by the spare take of "Prince" at a first listen. It seemed to have a long introduction, and also to sound rather more like "Where or When" than what it was supposed to be. Of course, where or when one's prince will come is a valid question, if he does someday come at all.

In fact, he came after "Harvest Time", since the track labeled as the spare take of "Prince" was the spare of "Harvest Time" and vice versa, misplaced on my copy. I wouldn't swap this for a proper one, and Columbia/Legacy tells me that this mistake will be corrected in future.

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