THE DOZENS: TWELVE ESSENTIAL HERBIE HANCOCK PERFORMANCES by Ted Gioia

When Miles Davis hired Herbie Hancock (along with Ron Carter and Tony Williams) in 1963, few fans believed that this band of newbies could rival the great ensembles Davis had led in the 1950s. How could a group of relative unknowns (at the time) ever match up with Coltrane and Cannonball and Evans (Bill or Gil, take your pick) and Philly Joe and all the rest?


                 Herbie Hancock, artwork by Suzanne Cerny


But Miles knew what he was doing. He had just secured one of the greatest rhythm sections of the era, and Hancock went on to enjoy stardom in his own right. Like Miles himself, Hancock built his career in distinctive stages, moving effortlessly from hard bop to fusion to pop and world music or whatever caught his fancy over the passing decades. And he achieved that greatest of rarities: he sold lots of records but also retained the deepest respect of jazz insiders. When most jazz artists ‘crossover,’ they usually burn the bridges that got them to the other side. But Hancock somehow wins at every game he plays.

How do we come to grips with an artist who has released some fifty projects as a leader and also ranks among the most prolific sidemen of his generation? Let’s see . . . we need a taste of Hancock with Miles, a good dose of his Blue Note work, a bite of fusion, and seasoned with VSOP and some all-star collaborations. We can’t fit everything into our list, but these dozen tracks will cover the basics and introduce you to the artistry of one of jazz’s finest performers.


Miles Davis: Seven Steps to Heaven

Track

Seven Steps to Heaven

Artist

Miles Davis (trumpet)

CD

Seven Steps to Heaven (Columbia / Legacy 93592)

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Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), George Coleman (tenor sax), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), Tony Williams (drums).

Composed by Victor Feldman and Miles Davis

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Recorded: New York, May 14, 1963

Albumcovermiles7steps

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)


Miles Davis, artwork by Michael Symonds

When Miles Davis added Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams to his band in 1963, they were far from household names, and not even widely known in the jazz world. But even on this debut recording, you can tell that Miles had found another dynamite rhythm section, one destined to influence the later evolution of jazz combo playing. Hancock plays with absolute authority from the intro to the final coda. And Carter moves this piece through the paces like a jockey heading for the finish line at Churchill Downs. And could it possibly be true that drummer Tony Williams was only seventeen years old when he made this recording? He might have been too young to register for the draft (not a bad thing in '63), but his drum breaks sound like they could lead a regiment of hipsters into hard-bop hand-to-hand combat. Where does Miles find 'em? Can't say. But where does he lead 'em? Easy, right up the seven steps to jazz heaven.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Herbie Hancock: Cantaloupe Island

Track

Cantaloupe Island

Artist

Herbie Hancock (piano)

CD

Empyrean Isles (Blue Note 84175)

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Musicians:

Herbie Hancock (piano), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Ron Carter (bass), Tony Williams (drums).

Composed by Herbie Hancock

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Recorded: Engelewood Cliffs, NJ, June 17, 1964

Albumcoverhhancockempyrean

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

This is one of the funkiest acoustic jazz performances of the era, ranking with those other Blue Note classics, Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder," Art Blakey's "Moanin'" and Hancock's own previous entry in the slam-funk competition, "Watermelon Man." The largely static harmonies impart a slight modal tinge to the composition, creating a spacey-futuristic groove that still sounds modernistic today. Hancock's piano vamp drives the band, and Hubbard contributes one of his most memorable solos. Forget about Gilligan's or Crusoe's boring beachfront property . . . the nightlife is better on "Cantaloupe Island."

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage

Track

Maiden Voyage

Artist

Herbie Hancock (piano)

CD

Maiden Voyage (Blue Note 95331)

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Musicians:

Herbie Hancock (piano), George Coleman (tenor sax), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Ron Carter (bass), Tony Williams (drums).

Composed by Herbie Hancock

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, N.J., March 17, 1965

Albumcoverhhancockmvoyage

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

"Maiden Voyage" stands out as a landmark of the Blue Note sound, and remains Herbie Hancock's finest composition. In the midst of a turbulent jazz scene, where musicians were restlessly exploring all of their options, Hancock always approached his recordings with a clear, holistic vision. Classic Hancock performances such as "Watermelon Man" or "Cantaloupe Island" would establish their identity in the introductory bars, and stick to the same course until they reached their chosen destination. The texture and ambiance of the music envelops the listener -- and the musicians too. If Freddie Hubbard ever took a hotter trumpet solo than on this recording, I haven't heard it. And all done with only four suspended chords -- but the 'hook' is in the vamp. One of the high points of 1960s jazz.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Herbie Hancock: Dolphin Dance

Track

Dolphin Dance

Artist

Herbie Hancock (piano)

CD

Maiden Voyage (Blue Note 95331)

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Musicians:

Herbie Hancock (piano), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), George Coleman (tenor sax), Ron Carter (bass), Tony Williams (drums).

Composed by Herbie Hancock

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, N.J., March 17, 1965

Albumcoverhhancockmvoyage

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

I marvel not just at the quality, but also at the impressive range of Hancock's work for the Blue Note label during the 1960s, which delved into everything from soul jazz to the avant-garde. And at the midpoint of the decade, Hancock offered up his now classic Maiden Voyage album, featuring a world-class band (essentially the Miles Davis Quintet with Freddie Hubbard stepping in for Miles) and some of the finest writing of his career. "Dolphin Dance" is my favorite Hancock composition, an impressionistic mood piece with very creative chord changes. He settles in at a difficult tempo, just a little too fast for a ballad, but not fast enough to swing the rhythm. Many other jazz ensembles falter at these betwixt and between tempos, but Hancock and cohorts float effortlessly like . . . well, I imagine, like dolphins at a dance. The pianist was now working with textures of sound rather than recycling the typical modern jazz harmonies. The ultimate hard-bop pianist was showing that he could move far beyond the confines of the genre. He might have spent another decade mining this rich vein of material, evolving into the Ravel or Debussy of jazz. But for Herbie Hancock this was just one more stopping point on a restless journey toward the next new thing.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Herbie Hancock: Speak Like a Child

Track

Speak Like a Child

Artist

Herbie Hancock (piano)

CD

Speak Like a Child (Blue Note 46136)

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Musicians:

Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), Mickey Roker (drums), Thad Jones (flugelhorn), Jerry Dodgion (alto flute),

Peter Phillips (bass trombone)

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Composed by Herbie Hancock

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, March 6 and 9, 1968

Albumcoverherbiehancock-speaklikeachild

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Every new release from Herbie Hancock during the 1960s seemed to chart an exciting step forward. On his Speak Like a Child session from 1968, Hancock experiments with the unusual front line of flugelhorn, bass trombone and alto flute. Peculiar idea, huh? Almost like a homework assignment at Berklee? Well, young student Hancock gets an A+ on this track. The horn writing is superb, and the whole track infused with a nostalgic, late night mood that makes you want to play it over and over again. This is Herbie Hancock in an Ellingtonian or Gil-Evans-ish vein, and leads one to speculate what wonders he would have worked had he dug in with a big band for a few years. But Hancock was looking forward not behind, and a few months later he was off to the Warner Bros. label working on his Fat Albert Rotunda project.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Herbie Hancock: Tell Me a Bedtime Story

Track

Tell Me a Bedtime Story

Group

Herbie Hancock and Mwandishi

CD

Mwandishi: The Compete Warner Bros. Recordings

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Musicians:

Herbie Hancock (piano, electric piano), Johnny Coles (trumpet), Garnett Brown (trombone), Joe Henderson (alto flute, tenor sax), Buster Williams (bass), Billy Hart (drums, percussion), Albert "Tootie" Heath (drums).

Composed by Herbie Hancock

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, October 3 - December 8, 1969

Albumcoverhhancockmwandishi

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

The smart horn writing on "Tell Me a Bedtime Story" looks back to the textures of "Speak Like a Child," but by now Herbie Hancock has gone electric, and the resulting mixture is one of the great medium-slow fusion performances of the era. This recording captures a "quiet storm" ambiance, and each of the band members sublimates his individual ego in order to sustain the late-night mood. Hancock's solo is more about textures than licks, and he projects his personality effectively through his electric piano. Soon Hancock would be moving away from these rich harmonies, embracing a style (epitomized in his hit "Chameleon") driven by basslines rather than chords. But "Tell Me a Bedtime Story" points toward a jazzier, more cerebral fusion -- one of the many paths tested briefly by Hancock, then abandoned in his quest for the next new thing.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Herbie Hancock: Watermelon Man (from Head Hunters, 1973)

Track

Watermelon Man

Group

Herbie Hancock and Headhunters

CD

Head Hunters (Columbia 65123)

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Musicians:

Herbie Hancock (piano), Bennie Maupin (reeds), Paul Jackson (bass), Harvey Mason (drums), Bill Summers (percussion).

Composed by Herbie Hancock

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Recorded: San Francisco, September, 1973

Albumcoverhhancockheadhunters

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Always dangerous to try to remake a classic. You can't just turn Citizen Kane into an story about an Internet media tycoon or make Moby Dick into a reality show. But every once in a while, an old masterpiece gets a fresh, invigorating take. Here Herbie Hancock reconfigures his 1962 hard-bop hit "Watermelon Man" into a 1973 fusion tune. Bill Summers' brilliant work on percussion (including a very cool imitation of the African hindewhu achieved by blowing into a beer bottle) is worth the price of admission alone. And Hancock gets high marks for the daring step of bringing the tempo down several notches from his Blue Note version, proving that slow-mo can be funkier than fast-forward. And when it's all done, put it on replay to hear that Summers intro one more time. Here is fusion that really fuses, drawing on African, Caribbean and jazz traditions, and mixing them into a cross-cultural gumbo.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


V.S.O.P.: One of a Kind

Track

One of a Kind

Group

V.S.O.P.

CD

V.S.O.P.: The Quintet (Columbia 34976)

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Musicians:

Herbie Hancock (piano), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Ron Carter (bass), Tony Williams (drums), Wayne Shorter (soprano sax).

Composed by Freddie Hubbard

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Recorded: live a the Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA, July 16, 1977 and San Diego Civic Theater, San Diego, CA, July 18, 1977

Albumcovervsop

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

If you weren't a jazz fan at the time, you can hardly imagine the stir that this band made back in 1977. Newsweek featured the V.S.O.P. quintet in a cover story, pronouncing that Jazz Is Back. Of course, jazz hadn't gone anywhere, although it was a homecoming of sorts for some of the V.S.O.P. band members who had focused their energies on fusion music for most of the decade. I remember the excitement at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, where much of the resulting V.S.O.P. album was recorded in concert, a palpable sense that jazz history was being made on stage. In retrospect, this 1977 revival of the great 1960s Miles Davis Quintet (with Freddie Hubbard standing in for Miles, who definitely Was Not Back) did signal that fusion music was no longer a hot new thing. But predictions of widespread public interest in hard bop were premature, to put it mildly. And did the V.S.O.P. band live up to the hype? Certainly the individual members of the quintet exude tremendous energy on "One of a Kind." Hubbard takes the first solo, and shows why even today he must be on any list of the hottest trumpeters in the history of the music. Shorter follows and he gets into an esoteric bag with Hancock. Carter and Williams constantly stoke the fire. Maybe the band is trying a bit too hard . . the proceedings remind me of the NBA All Star Game where the heroics seem a little too staged. No, the V.S.O.P. reunion won't make you forget the great Blue Note sides these same musicians made in the 1960s, but it is much more than just a historical artifact. Pound for pound, no band of the decade had more raw talent on the stage, and if it had stayed together for a few years, and not just for a Very Special One-Time Performance, V.S.O.P. might have really shaken things up.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Ron Carter (with Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams): Lawra

Track

Lawra

Group

Ron Carter (featuring Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams)

CD

Third Plane (OJCCD-75 / Milestone M-9105 )

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Musicians:

Ron Carter (bass), Herbie Hancock (piano), Tony Williams (drums).

Composed by Tony Williams

.

Recorded: The Automatt Recording Studios, San Francisco, CA, July 13, 1977

Albumcoverroncarter3plane

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

You could hardly imagine a simpler composition -- a repeated two-note figure, with a syncopated displace- ment in bar five. And then you do it again . . . and again . . . and again. But this world-beating trio takes an easy game and brings it to exciting new places, like Fischer and Spassky playing tiddlywinks for mastery of the universe. Tony Williams wrote the piece, and seems to be having a blast on the drums. Ron Carter (leader of this session for the Milestone label) is a delight with his basslines, which bend and amble and strut like a gymnast on the balancing bar. But he is also the supreme accompanist, and even when he pushes the limit of what constitutes a "walking line" he still is perfectly in sync with Hancock and Williams. One of the finest trio dates of the era.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Herbie Hancock: Someday My Prince Will Come

Track

Someday My Prince Will Come

Artist

Herbie Hancock (piano)

CD

The Piano (Columbia/Legacy 87083)

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Musicians:

Herbie Hancock (piano).

Composed by Frank E. Churchill and Larry Morey

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Recorded: Tokyo, October 25 and 26, 1978

Albumcoverherbiehancockthepiano

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Why does Herbie Hancock always save his best solo work for the Japanese market? When he was at the high point (low point?) of his career as a "fusion" artist, he released a solid, serious, solo keyboard effort called Dedication -- but only in Japan. I had to convert the holdings of my piggy bank into yen and find an import-export agent just to sniff the vinyl. The Piano is much the same story: a great collection of solo piano performances, but kept out of the US market for 25 years. "Someday My Prince Will Come" is a smart reworking of the famous Disney soundtrack song, with constant change-ups in mood, dynamics and attack. Although Hancock has recorded some 50 recordings as a leader, there are very few examples of him playing standards without accompaniment. This is one of the finest.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Herbie Hancock (featuring John Mayer): Stitched Up

Track

Stitched Up

Group

Herbie Hancock (featuring John Mayer)

CD

Possibilities (Hear Music / Hancock Music 70013)

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Musicians:

Herbie Hancock (piano), John Mayer (vocals, guitar),

Michael Bearden (keyboards), Willie Weeks (bass), Steve Jordan (drums)

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Composed by John Mayer and Herbie Hancock

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Recorded: Van Nuys, CA, no recording date given (CD released in 2005)

Albumcoverhhancockpossibilities

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Sometimes these pop-star-meets-jazzcat dream dates go bad before the appetizers are on the table. But Mayer is not your typical pop star, and Hancock knows how to cross over without losing his balance. It helps that the song is hot, with an irresistible dance beat on the refrain. Hancock deserves a lot of credit for the groove, digging in with that acoustic funk sound he pioneered back in his Blue Note days, but the rest of the band is also in the pocket. Steve Jordan may be a rock-pop drummer, but he could teach jazz snobs how to lay down a beat. And Mayer sings with the white Motown soulfulness he pioneered on that crazy Continuum release -- yeah, you know, that disk that looked like ECM on the cover but sounded like Marvin Gaye when you popped in into the CD player. Hey guys, how about a second date?

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Herbie Hancock (with Corinne Bailey Rae): River

Track

River

Artist

Herbie Hancock (piano) and Corinne Bailey Rae (vocals)

CD

River: The Joni Letters (Verve 10063)

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Musicians:

Herbie Hancock (piano), Corinne Bailey Rae (vocals), Dave Holland (bass), Vinnie Colaiuta (drums), Wayne Shorter (soprano sax).

Composed by Joni Mitchell

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Recorded: New York and Hollywood, except for Corinne Bailey Rae's vocal, which was recorded in Yorkshire, England, no dates given (CD released in 2007)

Albumcoverhhancockriver

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

I love jazz and I love Joni . . . but I get nervous when they are mixed together. Joni Mitchell's idiosyncratic delivery is already so jazzy, that it is hard enough just singing it straight. Trying to jazz up these songs further is like adding more cayenne pepper to grandma's prizewinning chili. As I have always said, nobody sings Joni better than the diva herself. But Corinne Bailey Rae makes me reconsider. This is the best version of "River" I've heard since that rude classmate drew a mustache on the cover of my Blue LP back in the Nixon era. Rae sings with sweet, almost girlish forthrightness, and just the right touch of melancholy. Hancock, Shorter, Holland and Colaiuta provide thoughtful accompaniment (albeit in a different studio on another continent) for a richly layered performance in which every phrase and micro-rhythm is perfectly placed.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


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