Reconsidering Herbie Hancock

This article orginally appeared on OpenSalon.

In the last year, I’ve purchased LPs of Hancock’s first two albums (Takin’ Off, Maiden Voyage) and the remastered CD of Empyrean Isles, his third. It’s given me a chance to hear the early Hancock in a concentrated dose and reconsider his place in the evolution of jazz. And a lofty place it is, I’ve decided.

Each has a tune or two that everyone knows, in one way or another. Takin’ Off starts off with Watermelon Man, Herbie’s signature take on Mongo Santamaria’s classic. Maiden Voyage has the title cut and Dolphin Dance, two tunes you’ve heard even if you don’t know it, as they’re often used in movies and such to denote hip sophisticated ’60s scenes. Empyrean Isles has Cantaloupe Island, sampled extensively (as are the other tunes I’ve mentioned) by funksters and hip-hoppers. It was the underlying loop for a big hip-hop hit by someone I can’t remember, but you’ve heard them.

Hancock came on the scene at a pivotal time in jazz history. The golden era of post-bop music that grew up around Monk, Coltrane, Davis, Rollins and others was essentially over. Free jazz, whether the Ornette Coleman strain or the John Coltrane strain, was just building up steam, to be headed off into the wild blues yonder. Many of the former era’s second tier was creating very nice but not so innovative music under the various umbrellas of hard bop, soul jazz and so on (Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderely, Horace Parlan, and so on).

There were a lot of idiosyncratic innovators — Bill Evans comes to mind — and the Brazilian/Latin fusion thing was also going on. But jazz lacked a center that was both innovative and accessible.

So let me suggest that in retrospect, it was Hancock who created that, or at least tried.

The first album only hints at it. Hancock mostly comps great  behind the great Dexter Gordon, who himself was among the most soulful of the older generation. But Watermelon Man puts a marker down for funky syncopated rhythms played over simple chord progressions.

It’s on Maiden Voyage that Hancock lays his cards down. He takes on Blue Note session trumpeter Freddie Hubbard as co-conspirator and along with tenorman George Coleman, they wind their way through a series of tunes that combines Blakey-like rhythms with some of Davis’ modal ideas.

Looking back, it seems to me that Davis looked at modal jazz as a way to simplify soloing. Evans, McCoy Tyner, and especially Hancock, took that idea and wrote tunes that started with the chords that Miles would hint at in his solos, so to speak.

OK, so that’s a lot of music theory speak for saying that Hancock started writing tunes that were not dedicated to all sorts of torturous chord changes in the bop style but rather to a smaller number of more interesting chords that let solos breath.  Somedays I hear it as an updating of the blues — a way to approach chords that gives a song a readily comprehensible structure, creates tension and release, and leaves room for a lot of creative improvisation.

Before giving Hancock all the credit, it’s worth noting that So What, Davis’ masterful opener to Kind of Blue, is really the mother of all of these tunes. You have to pinch yourself when you realize that Davis wrote a tune in 1957 that set the tone for so much of music from then until now.

But it’s Hancock, on Maiden Voyage and Empyrean Isles, that turned that idea into a repertoire. Listen to Oliloqui Valley on Empyrean Isles and you’ll hear a kind of music that’s at once hip and accessible. Gathering around him topflight Blue Note session men Hubbard and bassist Ron Carter and enfant terrible Tony Williams on drums, he creates music that’s the jazz companion to James Brown — tight, hip and listenable.

It was this group that Miles essentially adopted after several years wandering in the wilderness looking for a replacement to his second great group, the Kind of Blue ensemble (Evans, Adderley, Coltrane, Paul Chambers (b) and  Jimmy Cobb (d)). Davis’ also added saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who in the Blakey band had also been writing these kind of new tunes, although often his tunes are somewhat more complex and idiosyncratic. I guess I should also point out that Adderley keyboardist Joe Zwainul (Mercy, Mercy, Mercy) was into similar things, later to anchor Weather Report with Shorter and bassist Jaco Pastorious.

In interviews,  Hancock is always deferential to Davis’ legacy. You might get the impression that the band were a bunch of talented kids molded by the master. Listen to Hancock’s early work and you can see how wrong that would be. This group brought with it 50% of what Davis was looking for in the middle and late ’60s, easily. That he later pushed into electric music and so on is a subject for another post, but in bringing on the Hancock ensemble, he must have learned from them, too.

Hancock has gotten a lot of props this year for his wonderful Joni Letters album. I hope some people have had a chance to go back over his body of work. Whether its the early period, his Headhunters stuff, or gems like The New Standards, Hancock has been much more than a great piano player. Check it out.