Speak Like a Child is a transitional album, in more ways than one. Originally released in 1968, it is only somewhat reflective of the rapidly changing musical and political fashions of the day. More to the point it spotlights a particularly emotive Hancock on the eve of his own transformation, looking backwards over the preceding decade with no small melancholy.
There will probably always be a breed of jazz purists who curse the day that jazz took note of the upstart rock and roll. Certainly, listening to the sophisticated and eminently satisfying post-bop swing on this disc, it’s not hard to see how the advent of fusion just a year or two later could have been seen as a visceral betrayal. This is, for the most part, gentle and spry music, the sound of six confident musicians in easy rapport. This is nowhere near as combative a statement as Miles Davis’ progressively more exotic late sixties recordings. But it is every bit a product of the sea-changes in jazz at the time, a melancholy and affecting snapshot of a fading era that almost — but not quite — tips into the realm of hoary nostalgia. The album title itself is an exhortation towards the past, and the song titles (the title track, “Toys”, “Farewell to Childhood”) tell a similar story of regretful maturity at odds with the perpetual impulse towards stasis and comfort.
Which is, of course, not to say that the move towards a more dynamic fusion on the part of musicians like Hancock and Davis was in any way a “maturation” of their sounds, merely a recognition of the fact that as much was lost as was gained in the transition. The fans may bewail the passage of time, but stasis is death for the conscientious artist. Speak Like A Child is that rarest of artifacts, a meditation on the ambiguous nature of change and loss that somehow manages to avoid the twin pitfalls of nostalgia and strident anticipation. There would be plenty of time for electric pianos and funk backbeats in the years to come. The future is on the way, and you can see it in the wings, but it isn’t here yet.
The biggest concession to the past comes in the form of Hancock’s conscious allusions towards Gil Evans. The make-up of his sextet on this disc, with Thad Jones on flugelhorn, Peter Phillips on bass trombone and Jerry Dodgion on alto flute, in addition to Ron Carter on bass and Micker Roker on drums, places an emphasis on the aggressive harmonizing that stands out as a hallmark of Evans’ work. There’s an attention to texture here, as on the climbing final movement of “Riot”, featuring the three wind instruments reaching towards simultaneous harmonic climax. The emphasis on harmony creates an interesting environment on tracks such as “Speak Like a Child”, where Hancock cedes the main melody to the wind instruments, and relegates his own piano to counterpoint (interestingly, as often as not Carter’s bass follows the melody line and not the rhythm throughout the album).
“Speak Like a Child” stands out for the Brazilian influence, with a samba-rhythm that wouldn’t be out of place on a Joao Gilberto record. Again, Hancock is content to cede the song’s melodic thrust to the winds, playing in and out of the movement with consummate ease. The crisp piano sounds mischievous when set against the soft and supple harmonies. “First Trip” allows Hancock to step back into the spotlight, with only Carter and Roker on hand to follow him into the stratosphere.
“Toys” is a study in sedate melancholy in an almost anachronistic bop paradigm, almost a blues track without the 12-bar format — “a tune with the colors of the blues but not the form”, as Hancock says in his liner notes. On that score it’s only partially successful, but it is still an immensely satisfying example of Hancock’s constantly expanding musical vocabulary, with a wider tolerance for loping, slightly dissonant melodic structure on display throughout. It’s important to listen to the contrast and dynamics throughout the whole album, the elastic, playful use of melody, counter-melody and harmony — and in particular the use of repetition and variation to create conflict between subtly changing melodic signatures.
The centerpiece of the album is “Goodbye to Childhood”, a profoundly melancholic emotional encapsulation of the entire disc. It’s built around a shambling, almost somnolent rhythm that keeps leading the piano and bass down into desolation but always manages to pull out and into a brighter melodic phrase. The tension between light and dark builds throughout the track until finally dissolving into the sustained elegiac notes held by the wind trio. The album finishes, fittingly, with “The Sorcerer”, Hancock’s tribute to Davis, and a signpost to the future. It’s a spry treatment, with none of the emotional ambiguity of the earlier tracks: a definite first step into a more confident manhood, to take the album’s overarching theme one step further.
The three bonus tracks provide an interesting aperture into the creative process behind the sextet’s evolution. The precise harmonies and rock-steady rhythmical counterpoints aren’t all there yet, but the telling inconsistencies offer an interesting view of their dynamics in flux. But while the bonus tracks offer an interesting counterpoint to the primary versions, they also reveal that Hancock ran a tight ship. There’s little of the intense variations you would expect from Davis’ later outfits.