Kronomyth 4.0: EMPIRICAL MILES. This is the first truly great Herbie Hancock record, featuring the current Miles Davis lineup with Freddie Hubbard as the newly coronated cornet. It’s a heavy benediction for Hubbard, who rises to the challenge with one of his greatest performances on the opening “One Finger Snap.” This first track is fiery stuff played at breakneck speed with precision and soul, breathtaking in execution and rich in the musical possibilities brought into its expansive vista. The influence of Miles had a remarkable effect on everyone; compare this to the performance of Hancock and Tony Williams on My Point of View from the previous year, and you’ll swear that years have passed. Williams was still developing his trademark style, but the solo on “One Finger Snap” is a quantum leap in the right direction. The second track, “Oliloqui Valley,” is one of my favorite Hancock compositions of all time. Where the opening number rushes in, this song is cautious coolness that gives Hancock the spotlight. Ron Carter’s solo during “Oliloqui Valley” is classic; he literally pulls the song apart in a slow-motion dissection of his instrument. (The alternate take of “Oliloqui Valley” included on the expanded remaster features a less radical solo.) The classic “Cantaloupe Island” joins a storied line of tasty treats to come from Hancock’s amazing melon and outswings them all. The record ends on an experimental note with “The Egg,” an avant-garde exploration of sound and musical interrelationships that couldn’t be more far removed from “Cantaloupe Island” if they were Australia and Antigua. The earlier albums from Hancock, while enjoyable, were mere sketches compared to the masterpieces of Empyrean Isles, Maiden Voyage and Speak Like A Child, any one of which is likely to turn up in a list of the greatest jazz albums of all time.
Kronomyth 5.0: CHRISTMAS EVEL. It’s the day before Christmas 1964, and in the mind of Wayne Shorter medical cadavers (and not sugarplums) are dancing. The previous two Blue Note sessions had their dark moments, but Speak No Evil is downright diabolical in theme: burning witches, bloodthirsty giants, dancing dead. For jazz fans, however, Speak No Evil is a gift come early: Shorter, Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock playing together on the hallowed eve before the dawn of the new Miles Davis Quintet, a group that would represent for many the greatest jazz band ever assembled. In fact, the record looks forward to the minimalism of Miles while stepping out of the shadow of John Coltrane. Shorter and the familiar Freddie Hubbard state the melody tersely, then step back, then step forward for solos. Their presence is one of pungency rather than omnipresence, leaving Hancock, Carter and Elvin Jones to fill the blackness with darting shapes and faces. The best track here is “Dance Cadaverous;” haunting in every sense of the word, it perfectly captures the composer’s macabre mood. (An alternate take of the track is included on the 1999 remaster and has a more animated gait, although the two tracks are very similar—not surprising given Shorter’s tendency to write out the parts.) The remaining five tracks have rightly been regarded as minor classics over the years, from the startling “Witch Hunt,” which comes out swinging like a guillotine, to the ballad “Infant Eyes,” written for his daughter Miyako. With Shorter at the height of his creative powers in the mid 60s and surrounded by a supremely gifted group, Speak No Evil may well be the quintessential Wayne Shorter album. Surprisingly, Amazon’s editors ranked it #9 in the Top 100 jazz albums of all time. The rank itself isn’t so surprising as the fact that Amazon actually has editors; I just assumed they used monkeys or dolphins with laser pointers taped to their fins (the ones that seem to continually strand themselves on beaches, not the smart ones).
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.
Kronomyth 8.0: V.S.O.P.P. I like RTF, so I picked up Echoes of An Era and Griffith Park Collection when they came out. Both bored the pants off me, and I ended up giving Griffith Park away. Loads of talent on these recordings (Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson on horns) but not a whole lot to say. Echoes took a gamble by letting Chaka Khan chew up eight classics. Her voice is the neodymium magnet in the room: you’re either attracted to it or freaked out that it’s in there. Personally, I’m pretty freaked out by her voice most of the time. I can listen to her without wincing, but to say that the horn solos of Henderson and Hubbard bring me relief is an understatement. Since I can only listen to people talk about jazz for about fifteen minutes before I want to tweak their little red tomahto nose, maybe I’m not the best judge of Echoes. You really need to buy into the idea that jazz is this evolving dialogue between the past and the future or something. You need to buy into the idea that Chaka Khan’s vocal interpretations make you hear classic music in a new way, and not in the way that The Chipmunks made you hear it. Whether you want to pay fifteen bucks to buy all that, that’s your decision. If you’re intrigued by jazz titans from the ‘70s playing old school jazz, I’d point you toward Herbie Hancock’s VSOP engagements instead (Freddie Hubbard was involved in both projects).