Kronomyth 35.0: SHOCK A KHAN. You wake up one morning, wash your face, turn on the idiot box and find that the revolution is not only being televised but choreographed to disembodied legs. Such was the Future Shock that audiences encountered in 1983 when Herbie Hancock and Material released this revolutionary, revelatory record. Future Shock didn’t just reboot Herbie Hancock’s career, it pressed the reset button on music. If you’d been watching Bill Laswell and Material, you knew they were fomenting revolution with their brand of dub, punk and funk. With Hancock, Material now had a hero for their platform, one who brought extensive jazz/funk credentials to the movement. The result is one of the most important (if not the most important) Material collaboration/mutation. True to its name, Future Shock felt like something from the distant future: sounds and styles collided, scratching turntables gave way to fluid jazz passages, computers shared space with sacred drums, and underneath it all was Laswell’s bass, grooving to its own inner drummer. Some of this isn’t far removed from Hancock’s earlier funk and fusion forays (e.g., “Future Shock,” “TFS”), but most of it represents a new journey for the jazz titan. “Rockit,” “Earth Beat” and “Autodrive” sound like nothing else in his catalog (or anyone’s catalog, for that matter). Jazz has always been an inclusive art form, but Hancock and Laswell took the doors off the hinges on this album to squeeze as many new ideas as possible into its accommodating parlor. Hard to believe that Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Gals” was the inspiration for this, since the one is a one-dimensional novelty (albeit a brilliant novelty) and the other a nova in the annals of popular music. Hancock and Material repeated the experiment the following year with Sound-System; both records remain remarkably fresh thirty years on.
Kronomyth 11.3: COLLEC2BL. There are days when I’m convinced the United States hasn’t contributed anything to the world except for jazz and a few good books of poetry. Where the former is concerned, we can boast an embarrassment of riches, as evidenced by this unreleased session from the 60s featuring Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Joe Chambers and Cecil McBee. Recorded in the summer of 1965 (six months after the stunning Speak No Evil), Etcetera is the only of Shorter’s Blue Note recordings to feature McBee on bass. The session is otherwise notable for an energized reading of Gil Evans’ “Barracudas” and four Shorter originals including “Indian Song” and the title track. In the company of the official Blue Note releases, Etcetera falls somewhere beside and perhaps slightly below Adam’s Apple. It’s not as adventurous as the concept albums (Juju, Evil, Eye) nor as meticulously crafted. What’s here are some very solid ideas (“Etcetera,” “Penelope”), but those looking for a showcase of Shorter’s talents will be disappointed. Miles could get away with being understated or even invisible. Shorter doesn’t have that kind of gravitas (yet), and I kept wishing for the saturated sound of a quintet or for Shorter to simply show up with a spectacular solo. Instead, Hancock emerges as the lead soloist on this session. While the playing on here is of too high a caliber to languish in an archival vault, you can understand why Blue Note waited to release it. This isn’t the meticulous Wayne Shorter who scored everything note by note, or the perfect meshing of movable parts built by master machinists. The songs on Etcetera lack the lived-in feel that more time or familiarity might have given them. Given the amount of talent present plus the ratio of Shorter’s Blue Note recordings relative to the interest in them, many will find this nigh irresistible and will be rewarded accordingly. It is not, however, a lost treasure, but rather an artful addendum. [Note that most of this material appeared on the earlier Japanese (and later US) release, The Collector.]
Kronomyth: DA BEST OF DEFUNCT. In the second half of the Seventies, Herbie Hancock put most of his energy into advancing the state of jazz/funk in the world. Initially (i.e., Headhunters), Hancock’s exploration of funk led to one of the more exciting musical adventures in modern music. Over time, however, the experiment began to feel formulaic as Hancock moved his experiment from the laboratory to the dance floor. This compilation provides a brief summary of a very fertile period that included several crossover hits, all of which are included here. You’ll find the insidiously funky “Chameleon” from Headhunters, the lovely jazz/funk hybrid of “I Thought It Was You” from Sunlight, the epic “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” from Man-Child and the indestructible “Doin’ It” from Secrets. Also included here are two tracks from Hancock’s most recent effort, Feets Don’t Fail Me Now: “Tell Everybody” (here presented in its disco mix version) and “Ready Or Not” (replaced by “You Bet Your Love” in the UK, where it was a Top 20 hit). FDFMN found Hancock shifting toward disco music, which has not endeared it to music critics, although there’s little question that Hancock elevates the medium even if the sum result seemed like slumming to some. Although Hancock did release a few more disco albums into the new decade, their achievements are superseded by what’s here. When this compilation was released on CD in the 80s, digital technology was perceived as its own value-add, and so Columbia simply re-issued it with the same six tracks. The decision not to expand on this in the last 25 years speaks to a cooling interest in Hancock’s funk phase. The Best of Herbie Hancock remains a good, succinct entrypoint into one of Hancock’s most creative (if least understood) periods.
Kronomyth 7.0: NOW WE ARE SIX. You never forget the first time you have a sextet. Herbie Hancock had poured most of his energies of late into the Miles Davis Quintet, and these March 1968 sessions marked his first time in the studio as a leader in more than a year. The environment was a little different this time: Duke Pearson was in the producer’s chair (the same man whose illness gave HH his big break in the Donald Byrd/Pepper Adams Quintet), Duke’s drummer was in the drum seat and a trio of horn, trombone and flute accompanied Hancock and Ron Carter. The horn section gave HH the extra voices he was looking for to explore broader harmonies in his music, and the results were lovely on “Speak Like A Child” and “Toys,” reaching a new level of beauty and sophistication for the young composer. The remaining tracks use the sextet sparingly and favor the hard bop format of old. “The Sorcerer” and “Riot” made their first appearances with MDQ and get a less agitated reading here (I personally prefer Hancock’s solos to Miles’ on “Riot”). Carter’s “First Light” is a fun song, written for his son after a good day at school, in keeping with the album’s theme of childhood (Hancock was making a statement about lost innocence or something, with the opening “Riot” underscoring adult society’s need to return to simpler times). “Goodbye To Childhood” employs dissonant harmony, but hinges mostly on the interplay between Hancock and Carter. Mickey Roker, who plays in the physical style of Philly Joe Jones (his avowed idol), is something of an acquired taste; I find his playing a bit roguish, but I’m lucky to find my car keys on most days. Speak Like A Child shows the further evolution of Herbie Hancock and is rightfully considered a classic. His playing continues to show increased confidence and creativity and, beyond the confines of the mad magician’s lab, an affinity for lyrical and sentimental music. In 2005, Blue Note reissued this release with three bonus tracks: two alternate takes of “Riot” (the first alternate take is slightly more mellow than the other two versions) and an alternate take of “Goodbye To Childhood” that features a long stretch of solo piano.
Kronomyth 5.0: WATER YOU’RE WAITING FOR. If time had been a kinder mistress, I might have waxed soft and eloquent about so many things: the gentle drumming of rain on window panes, the cicadas’ shrill paeans to the long empty silences of summer. But I’ve stolen enough kisses and caresses from time over the last two weeks to make a decent report of Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage. This is the best of his Blue Note recordings, a voyage that sails for new worlds with the able crew of the MDQ, past Empyrean Isles and into the deep blue sea of boundless possibilities where movement and stillness are yin and yang. Conceived as a series of tone poems on watery themes, Maiden Voyage isn’t so far removed from Wayne Shorter’s conceptual records (Speak No Evil, The All Seeing Eye), which may be one reason why Hancock invited George Coleman to “replace” Shorter in the tenor sax seat. Adding the smooth-sounding Coleman to the quintet makes all of the difference in the world, as his solos often provide a reassuring reference point for the listener in a sometimes bewildering sea of sound. That’s the case on the opening “Maiden Voyage,” where Hancock and Carter create a near-perfect impression of water (refracted light, ebb and flow) and Coleman sails over it with ease. Freddie Hubbard’s solo on the same song, by contrast, is more concerned with making a splash in the water and disrupting its placid surface. This has led some listeners to regard Hubbard as out of place in the music, but I would argue the opposite: Coleman is the lone non-disruptive force in the music, which makes his contributions more meaningful. The rhythm section of Tony Williams and Ron Carter are in constant motion; if the pair take few solos, it’s because on many of these songs (“Eye of The Hurricane,” “Survival of The Fittest”) they’re soloing the whole time. Hancock, for his part, directs the discussion with splashes of sound and color but rarely steps into the spotlight; like Miles Davis, HH is both the architect and the saboteur. The songs on Empyrean Isles were just as individually impressive, but collectively the material works better on Maiden Voyage. Take for example the moment in “Survival of The Fittest” where Hancock’s piano teeters, trips and skips to the edge of exhaustion only to explode into a drum solo; a short pause, and you’re ushered back into the civilized world of “Dolphin Dance” as though the previous madness were only an illusion. This place of roiling seas and placid pools is the unique province of Maiden Voyage and what makes it such a special journey after all these years.
At the moment, I’d be inclined to call Herbie Hancock the greatest jazz pianist of his generation. The early Blue Note recordings are a feast for fans of post (and pre-post) bop: “Watermelon Man,” “Succotash,” “Cantaloupe Island.” Hancock quickly caught the attention of Miles Davis, joining the second great Quintet (1963-1969) that eventually included Wayne Shorter. A prodigious talent, Hancock also appears on many important sessions during this period, including recordings with Shorter (Speak No Evil) and Freddie Hubbard (Red Clay).
In the Seventies, Hancock signed with Warner Bros. and began making music that deeply identified with his own African-American ethnicity—Fat Albert Rotunda (1970), Mwandishi (1971), Sextant (1973)—and found him increasingly favoring electric instrumentation. Head Hunters (1974), with its unique jazz/funk fusion, was a crossover success and established Hancock as a viable commercial artist. He continued to release commercially successful funk/disco records (to the consternation of jazz snobs) while keeping the Quintet’s flame alive through the V.S.O.P. recordings (to the delight of all-too-easily-consternated jazz snobs).
In the 80s, Hancock re-re-defined his audience with Future Shock (1983): an electronic rock/dance record that had more in common with the groundbreaking “cut-up” music of Bill Laswell’s Material and The Art of Noise than jazz. In the 90s, he experimented with hip-hop and returned to the classics of Miles (which netted him his second Grammy) and George Gershwin. River (2007), an interpretive album that turned Joni Mitchell’s jazz lens back on herself, was named Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards—confirming that Hancock’s appeal continues to cross genres and generations.
Kronomyth 5.0: SILENT KNIGHT. This is an ambient/classical/jazz album recorded in between Joe Zawinul’s brief but brilliant stint in the Miles Davis group and the formation of Weather Report. It’s in line with his work from the period, a kind of continuation of the ambient jazz introduced on In A Silent Way (1969), recorded with a large ensemble cast similar to Bitches Brew (1970) and featuring future Weather Report co-founders Miroslav Vitous and Wayne Shorter. Although it didn’t change the direction of jazz like Silent Way or Bitches Brew, and nothing on here is quite as lovely as “Orange Lady,” Zawinul is an important milestone in the career and development of Joe Zawinul, one of the great visionary keyboardists of the 20th century. Conceived as a tone poem of sorts, the album contains five songs that have deep, personal meaning to Zawinul, including a return to “In A Silent Way,” here presented in its original form with the introduction intact. In describing this music, I keep returning to the protogenesis of a new world. It’s matter in movement, the death and rebirth of stars and planets in a strange, new galaxy of sound. Yet this is also sentimental music in many ways; in earlier attempts at this review (I often go through multiple intros before I find the right mood), I had cast Zawinul as a science-fiction sentimentalist. He’s an intrepid explorer with a backpack of childhood memories slung over one shoulder, and perhaps it’s that dual residency in the past and the future that allows him to see everything as alien. As for the supporting musicians, they’re only chess pieces to a point, or colors on a palette from which Zawinul is free to paint. In other words, the exciting things that might have happened in an open collaboration between Zawinul and Herbie Hancock don’t happen here. Zawinul’s creation is closed to the idea of chaos in that sense; it’s a controlled experiment and Zawinul is the lone mad scientist in a room full of high-ranking henchmen. At the time of its release, Zawinul charted respectably but was overshadowed by Bitches Brew and forgotten in the wake of Weather Report. It’s an album ripe for rediscovery, especially if your tastes lean toward the aforementioned albums, ambient composers like Brian Eno and Harold Budd, or the free jazz experiments of John Coltrane.
Kronomyth 7.0: SAX APPLE. The earlier Blue Note albums (Juju, Speak No Evil, The All-Seeing Eye) basically amounted to program music around the themes of the Exotic, the Macabre and the Omniscient, resepectively. With no central theme at work, it could be said that Wayne Shorter had entered into a more confident place on Adam’s Apple where he could now let his music do the talking. Or it may simply be that Shorter needed a holiday from arcane subtexts, given his ongoing apprenticeship with the archmage Miles. (Nothing on here, for example, will prepare you for the utterly diabolic version of “Footprints” that Miles recorded with the quintet for the Miles Smiles album.) This is one of Shorter’s most plainly listenable records: the sax is clear and high in the mix, melody wins out over complexity, the rhythm section of Herbie Hancock and Joe Chamber swings, and Reginald Workman provides the hint of structure needed to hold everything together. Personally, I think Hancock and especially Workman are undermiked on this recording, although bringing Chambers up in the mix provides plenty of interesting contrast in the music. The opening “Adam’s Apple,” recorded a few weeks before the rest of these recordings, comes out swinging in a playfully contained canter that feigns toward a full trot which never arrives. Shorter uses a similar melody for the bossa nova-based “El Gaucho.” In between them, Jimmy Rowles’ “502 Blues” gets a warm reading. On side two, “Footprints” makes its first appearance and leaves a far friendlier impression than its subsequent, fiendish doppleganger. “Teru” is a beautiful, ethereal ballad, leading up to the lively, loping stride of “Chief Crazy Horse.” When the album was re-released on the longer CD format, Blue Note restored the Herbie Hancock original, “The Collector,” which the quartet had recorded on February 24 but left off the original album because of time constraints. It’s an experimental and noisy song that underscores how easily this album might have taken the avant-garde direction of Miles Davis. Instead, Wayne Shorter offered up decidedly sweeter fare, which has (rightly) endeared it to listeners over the years. It’s not his most profound or thought-provoking work, but it may be one of his most appl’ing.
Kronomyth 3.0: AVANT GOURD. Herbie Hancock’s third album, and first since joining the Miles Davis Quintet, finds the pianist in an experimental mood with an unconventional lineup of bass, drums and percussion. In the opening moments, Hancock is careful to introduce the new ingredients one at a time: Paul Chambers on bass, Osvaldo “Chihuahua” Martinez on guiro, Willie Bobo on drums and, finally, Hancock himself extemporizing over the rhythmic foundation in single notes and occasional chords. Although Hancock is still technically working within the post-bop medium on this album, it’s a very different animal than his first two records. Melodies are rare, and you’ll really only find the one on the lone pre-arranged song, “Mimosa.” The remaining four tracks are improvisatory statements with minimal staging from Hancock: an agreed-upon time signature, perhaps, or a particular piece of percussion assigned. Otherwise, the quartet is given complete freedom. Yet, it’s a funny thing about freedom: given a choice, most of us return to what we know. On Inventions & Dimensions, Hancock is the only one inventing and exploring new dimensions; the remaining trio rarely depart from their conventional course. Chambers came at the suggestion of Miles Davis, his previous employer for the last eight years, and he’s an eminently capable bass player, but this is not the right setting for him. Tellingly, he only played with Hancock once. Bobo and Martinez also seem uncertain of what to do with their newfound “freedom.” Willie Bobo does let loose on the timbales during “Jack Rabbit,” but you don’t need to throw out the jazz rulebook just to get a timbale solo. Inventions & Dimensions is ultimately a detour to nowhere, although it does include a couple of winning numbers in “Succotash” (like “Watermelon Man” before it, a fine example of Hancock’s rhythmic sensibilities) and the lovely “Mimosa.” The concept of marrying post-bop piano improvisations to Latin percussion is an interesting one, yet this is more of an awkward first date than a marriage. In the mid 70s, the album was re-released as Succotash and co-credited to Willie Bobo for some reason. Subsequent digital remasters included an alternate take of “Mimosa” as a bonus track.
Kronomyth 29.0: FUNKENSTEINOWITZ. Monster is another of Herbie Hancock’s funk/disco albums. This would usually be where I begin to denigrate disco as an inferior medium for a man of his stature, but I gots a booty like everybody and sometimes it needs a good shaking. Most of the Miles contingent sacrificed a few albums to the gods of the dance, and few of them are done better than Monster. Hancock assembled an impressive arsenal of electronic keyboards, including one of the earliest appearances of the Clavitar (a combination keyboard/guitar, which you can hear put to good use on “Don’t Hold It In”). The album is also notable for appearances by Carlos Santana and Santana vocalist Greg Walker. Every track on Monster has vocals (Hancock mercifully keeps to his keys), with guests Bill Champlin, Gavin Christopher and a returning Oren Waters each taking a turn. The rest of the band is pretty much a pick-up from his last (Sheila Escovedo, Wah Wah Watson, Freddie Washington, Ray Parker Jr.) with the new addition of Alphonse Mouzon on drums. While the album was a commercial success (half of its songs were issued as singles), there are some who would tell you that Monster is merely commercial product (in fact, I used to be one of those people). Yet the truth is that anything made out of plastic with a universal price code is product. Hancock’s interest in disco, funk and rock is legitimate, and Monster has a lot to offer musically, from the Latin crossover of “Saturday Night” (reminiscent of Chick Corea) to the intelligent funk of “Go For It” (which anticipates acts like Was Not Was). It’s obviously not the first Herbie Hancock album you need to own, but don’t let those jazz snobs scare you away from Monster. If you’re interested in hearing Hancock in a disco/funk/rock setting with vocals and guitars (and the clavitar), go for it.