[Review] Herbie Hancock: The Prisoner (1969)

A year after MLK was murdered, Herbie writes a modal jazz masterpiece dedicated to the man.

Kronomyth 8.0: Say that I was a drum major for justice.

It is perhaps ironic that Herbie Hancock found his greatest musical freedom on an album called The Prisoner. Featuring a nine-piece band that now included tenor saxophone, trombone and bass clarinet, Hancock builds upon the mature modal jazz of Speak Like a Child with another thematically linked album that utilizes an even wider palette of sounds. The album is also important for the shift in its attention toward the African-American experience. Released in the year following Martin Luther King’s murder, the songs are based on the civil rights struggle in general and King in particular.

I Have a Dream begins with a cool bass line from Buster Williams before building into a captivating squall of sound. Johnny Coles and Joe Henderson slip in notable solos that explore the edges where melody and mayhem meet, complemented by cascading notes from Hancock himself. The song is some of the most sophisticated modal jazz in the Hancock canon. The Prisoner paints a more troubled picture with the same broad palette of colors, representing a hybrid of modal mood shifts and frenetic bebop soloing.

Side two opens with Williams’ Firewater, arguably the album’s most accessible track. Based on the duality of anger and calmness (King), the song swings along nicely. He Who Lives in Fear, again based on King, is troubled music in the modal jazz format. Williams and Tootie Heath are grooving on their own inner plane on this track. The record closes with Promise of the Sun, a complex cabernet in which the horns go off in all directions.

As the last of the Blue Note recordings from Hancock, The Prisoner marks the end of an era. Subsequent albums on Warner Brothers would explore soul and funk as Hancock took a greater interest in his African roots. It’s a sophisticated and sometimes complicated album, but one that rewards repeated listenings. In fact, this would probably make my shortlist of favorite Hancock recordings, assuming the list numbered more than five albums (which it certainly should).

Original elpee version

A1. I Have a Dream (10:55)
A2. The Prisoner (7:55)
B1. Firewater (Buster Williams) (7:30)
B2. He Who Lives in Fear (6:50)
B3. Promise of the Sun (7:50)

All songs written by Herbie Hancock unless noted.

CD reissue bonus tracks
6. The Prisoner (alternate take) (Herbie Hancock) (5:45)
7. Firewater (alternate take) (Buster Williams) (8:38)

8-track version
A1. The Prisoner
A2. I Have a Dream
B1. I Have a Dream (continued)
B2. He Who Lives in Fear
C1. He Who Lives in Fear (continued)
C2. Firewater
D1. Firewater (continued)
D2. Promise of the Sun

The Players

Herbie Hancock (piano and electric piano), Garnett Brown (trombone), Johnny Coles (flugelhorn), Albert “Tootie” Heath (drums), Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone and alto-flute), Hubert Laws (flute), Jerome Richardson (bass clarinet and flute), Tony Studd (bass trombone), Buster Williams (bass) with Jack Jeffers (bass trombone on B1/B3), Romeo Penque (bass clarinet on B1/B3). Produced by Duke Pearson; engineered by Rudy Van Gelder.

The Pictures

Art direction by Frank Gauna.

The Plastic

Released on elpee in 1969 in the US (Blue Note, BST 84321).

  1. Re-issued on 8-track in the US (Liberty/United Artists, 8 9022) with different track order.
  2. Re-issued on elpee in 1975 in the US (Blue Note, BST 84321) [solid blue label].
  3. Re-issued on compact disc in 1986 in Japan (Blue Note, CP32-5220).
  4. Re-issued on elpee in 1987 in France (Blue Note, BST 84321) and on compact disc in 1987 (Blue Note, 46845).
  5. Re-released on expanded, remastered compact disc on October 10, 2000 in the US (Blue Note, 25649-2) with 2 bonus tracks.
  6. Re-issued on expanded, 24-bit remastered compact disc on January 22, 2003 in Japan (EMI/Toshiba, TOCJ-9370) with 2 bonus tracks.
  7. Re-issued on expanded, remastered compact disc on January 23, 2008 in Japan (Blue Note, TOCJ-7080).
  8. Re-released on 180g vinyl elpee in 2020 in the US (Universal, B0031460-01).

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