Category Archives: Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock Discography

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.

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Herbie Hancock: Takin’ Off (1963)

Double H comes out swinging on his first solo set with a pair of horns (Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon) that any head would envy. This is black-tie-and-jacket jazz, the work of a smart young sophisticate who knows how to mix the urban with the urbane. Yes, this features the classic “Watermelon Man,” with its fun, familiar and insistent form ambling through the decades, ageless. But it’s the cool breeze of Freddie and Dex that lingers in your ears after the disc is done. Their solos, interspersed with Herbie’s handwork, light up a number like “Empty Pockets” or “Driftin’.” The early recordings from HH are conventional by design. He was still young (22), barely out of school, yet to work under that illustrious teacher, Miles, his best work ahead of him. This first album is flawlessly executed, not flashy or brilliant but solid like cool marble. Herbie is capable of grand designs (“The Maze,” “Three Bags Full”), but he’s not one of those mathematical sorts who litters the page with black dots. Songs sway, skip, lilt, curtsy and sit down. For some listeners, hard bop is a history lesson, dry and dull. For others, it’s jazz at its most elevated, cerebral and serene. I personally dig the clean-sounding, crisp execution of Takin’ Off. Hancock’s sense of rhythm is playful, his compositions are smart and sentimental (“Alone And I”), his band comprised of consummate professionals. As the first record from a soon-to-be jazz titan, Takin’ Off launched a brilliant career and grabbed the attention of the jazz establishment with a mature sound that belied its composer’s tender years.

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Herbie Hancock: My Point of View (1963)

Kronomyth 2.0: BLIND WATERMELON. Herbie shuffles the lineup but plays pretty much the same cards on My Point of View. His second album is notable for the inclusion of Donald Byrd, who had taken Hancock under his wing years earlier, Hank Mobley and a 17-year-old Tony Williams. Creatively speaking, it’s a lateral move, with Hancock reiterating the musical points he made earlier on Takin’ Off. “Blind Man, Blind Man” is essentially a rewrite of “Watermelon Man;” from a distance, I couldn’t tell the two apart. “The Pleasure Is Mine” and “A Tribute To Someone” continue to balance out the barrelhouse numbers with gentrified jazz. I don’t mean to sound dismissive with that word, since “A Tribute To Someone” is one of my favorite songs on here and a fine showcase for Mobley’s smooth-as-butter tenor. It’s just that Hancock’s early songs tend to consist of either a few notes hammered out in rhythmic repetition or cosmopolitan clusters of notes presented in well-mannered melodies. One amelodic entry does slip into the set, “King Cobra,” which will appeal to fans of more difficult jazz. The closing “And What If I Don’t,” by contrast, is surprisingly accessible and melodic enough to qualify as pop music. Hancock has a remarkable sense of rhythm and swing, which makes his later interest in funk part of a logical arc. Personally, I prefer the Blue Note sessions of Empyrean Isles and onward, as Hancock became more confident as an arranger/composer. His point of view would get more profound with time. My Point of View is certainly worth a listen, especially for Byrd watchers who remember Hancock as a piano prodigy. The post-Miles Hancock, however, is a bird of a different feather. Oh, and as for Williams’ early performance, to borrow a Monty Python quote, he got better.

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Herbie Hancock: Inventions & Dimensions (1964)

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.

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Herbie Hancock: Empyrean Isles (1964)

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.

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Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil (1965)

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).

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Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage (1965)

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.

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Wayne Shorter: Adam’s Apple (1966)

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.

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Herbie Hancock: Speak Like A Child (1968)

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.

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Joe Zawinul: Zawinul (1971)

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.

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