Wow! The ever youthful Herbie Hancock is 80 years old. The pianist and jazz ambassador was born on 12 April 1940 in Chicago. Like many jazz pianists, Hancock received a classical musical education, studying from age seven. Such was his talent that his first public recital at the age of 11 was of the first movement of a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Hancock’s first recordings were with trumpeter Donald Byrd in 1961 but it wasn’t long before Blue Note gave him his first date as leader – Takin’ Off in 1962 – and his first hit with the lead off track Watermelon Man. Regarded as one of the most accomplished debuts in jazz, Takin’ Off is now available as a Blue Note reissue under their Blue Note 80 series. The album caught the attention of the ever-shrewd Miles Davis who quickly incorporated Hancock into his new quintet. Hancock was only 23 at the time – new drummer Tony Williams was just 17.
While in Davis’s band, Hancock found time to record dozens of sessions for the Blue Note label, both under his own name and as a sideman with other musicians including Wayne Shorter, Grant Green, Bobby Hutcherson, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. Almost all of Hancock’s albums for Blue Note are outstanding – but particular mention must go to the 1964 outing – Inventions and Dimensions which included two Latin percussionists and featured one of my favourite Hancock compositions, the ostinato-driven Succotash. Of course, the most well known album of this period appeared the following year. Maiden Voyage is the archetypal Blue Note album and deserves to be in everyone’s collection. The title track is outstanding but there’s more to enjoy including the often covered Dolphin Dance. The personnel on this Blue Note is Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, George Coleman on tenor sax, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. Maiden Voyage has been covered by many artists including Grant Green on his Alive! album. You can hear this reflective version right here.
Like many jazz artists of the period, Hancock was keen to incorporate electric and then electronic keyboards and, after the R&B inspired Fat Albert Rotunda album from 1969, Hancock moved into fully electronic mode with a trilogy of recordings between 1971 and 1973 – Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant. This new sextet comprised Hancock, Buster Williams on bass, drummer Billy Hart and a trio of horn players – Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Julian Priester on trombone and multireedist Bennie Maupin. Electronics pioneer Patrick Gleeson was included on the latter two albums and was instrumental (!) in the sound of such compositions as Rain Dance. Two albums with pretty much the same personnel were recorded under trumpeter Eddie Henderson’s name and are equally worth exploring. Start with the excellent Mars in Libra from the Realization album (1973).
And then came the big breakthrough – the 1974 album Headhunters with four extraordinary tracks, including a radical reworking of Watermelon Man. That intro and outro sound was derived from a field recording of hindewhu music from the Ba-Benzélé tribe of central Africa. Percussionist Bill Summers had heard the music on an ethnomusicology LP, The Music of the Ba-Benzélé Pygmies (1966), by Simha Arom and Genviève Taurelle. The other three cuts are the standouts too, and the 15 minute long Chameleon was to become one of Hancock’s most well known compositions. The follow-up album Thrust from 1974 was almost a successful and just as good. Hancock moved in an ever-further commercial direction with Man-Child and Secrets, each of which contained more superb tracks. I remember buying Man-Child (on vinyl, of course) the moment it came out in 1975 and was blown away by the double bassline and horns in The Traitor. Like many of Hancock’s albums, it’s one you can return to again and again.
A period of consolidation followed with some superb live albums that saw Hancock’s facility with reworkings of old Blue Note classics alongside more contemporary tracks. The album Sunlight signalled another change of direction though with Hancock – ever enthusiastic about new technology – using a vocoder for the first time. The album also featured iconic bass player Jaco Pastorius on the final cut Good Question. Whilst the subsequent disco-influenced Vocoder albums received a mixed reception, Hancock continued to record with a new version of his Blue Note style VSOP group before the next breakthrough – the first jazz hip-hop tune, 1983’s Rockit from the album Future Shock. Bass player and producer Bill Laswell was to feature significantly on this and three subsequent releases, ending with Perfect Machine in 1988. It would be Hancock’s last album for six years, as he concentrated on other projects. He re-emerged with Dis is Da Drum in 1994 – a curiously-titled and rather neglected album. There’s a debt to classic 90s hip-hop scratching rhythms – easily heard in the track Mojuba – but also some acoustic piano soloing too. Also from this period is the sometimes neglected New Standard album in which Hancock performs the same trick as his mentor Miles Davis was to do a few years later – reinventing pop and rock tunes as jazz standards. Prince in a jazz arrangement? Why not – listen to the excellent Thieves in Temple with the all star band of Michael Brecker on saxes, John Scofield on guitar, Dave Holland on bass, Jack deJohnette on drums and Don Alias on percussion.
A re-reading of Gershwin’s tunes in 1998 that featured a plethora of guest stars also turned out much better than expected and generated a world tour. Nowhere is the album more surprising than on Duke Ellington’s Cotton Tail, itself a reworking of I Got Rhythm. Wayne Shorter is outstanding. The electronic album that followed Gershwin’s World, Future2Future, turned out to be rather less successful and 2005’s Possibilities took the guest star quotient rather too far.
But help was at hand through Hancock’s longtime friendship with singer Joni Mitchell, herself no stranger to jazz. River: the Joni Letters was a real return to form. Guest vocalists, including Corinne Bailey Rae on the title track, were accompanied by some beautiful piano from Hancock. Mitchell herself made an appearance but Norah Jones and Tina Turner (on Edith and the Kingpin) were almost equally effective. The distinctive tenor solo on this track is (of course) by Wayne Shorter and Prince plays (uncredited) guitar. River justifiably won the 2008 Album of the Year Grammy Award.
Hancock appeared on the 2014 Flying Lotus album You’re Dead and his new album is eagerly awaited with likely contributions from Wayne Shorter, Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington and – yes – Snoop Dogg. We will no doubt feature it here on Cosmic Jazz but, until then, here’s to Herbie Hancock – eighty years young!