The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions
By Peter Margasak
In his recent book Visions of Jazz: The First Century, Gary Giddins writes, “If Herbie Hancock had gone to the great beyond in 1968, he would now be solemnly regarded as a jazz god.” Instead he lived to show the world he was a philistine. Following a promising exploration of electronics that began with Fat Albert Rotunda in 1970, he split up a brilliant sextet because it wasn’t supporting itself, and nearly every piece of music he’s made since has been tempered by a calculated marketability. Taken together, the recently released six-CD set The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions, which compiles the seven landmark albums Hancock recorded for that label, and his latest recording, a George Gershwin tribute, demonstrate more vividly than words ever could the havoc this strategy has wreaked on his muse over time.
In the liner notes to the new album Hancock writes, “In recent years I’m more interested in working toward making events, not just records.” And compared to some of the audacious moves he’s made in the last three decades–launching the neobop movement, helping popularize hip-hop, dabbling in world music, winning a Grammy for scoring Round Midnight, and covering 90s pop artists like Nirvana and Peter Gabriel, among other things–his Blue Note recordings do seem like “just records.” But those records capture a vital artist finding and refining his voice, making bold statements in the natural course of pursuing an artistic vision instead of the other way around. Of course jazz is a tough field to earn a living in these days, and no one can dictate how Hancock should operate within its wonderfully hazy borders. But the drop-off after the mind-warping psychedelic jazz of Sextant (recorded in 1972, released a year later, and reissued on CD in ’98) is so dramatic, so absolute, that it’s hard not to view any subsequent work–no matter how substantial, influential, or interesting–without some cynicism. To my ears he never again made a record so focused on pure expression.
Hancock’s broad interests were apparent early. The Chicago-born keyboardist was initially taken with classical music, and at 11 he performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He became interested in jazz while attending Hyde Park High School, and in 1960 he returned from Grinnell College in Iowa with a degree in musical composition. He began gigging around town and within a few months had caught the attention of Coleman Hawkins, who used him in an engagement that fall. The following year trumpeter Donald Byrd lured him to New York to be his regular pianist, and in 1962 Hancock cut his own debut, Takin’ Off, for Blue Note. From the album’s vaunted personnel alone–tenorist Dexter Gordon, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Butch Warren, and drummer Billy Higgins–it was clear that he was turning all the right heads, and with good reason. Though they were written in the blues- and funk-tinged hard-bop style of the day, his melodies stood out, particularly the gritty, gospel-flavored “Watermelon Man,” which soon became a big hit for Latin percussionist Mongo Santamaria. Hancock’s relentlessly funky two-chord vamp greased the rhythmic muscle in Gordon’s and Hubbard’s solos.
Bob Belden’s liner notes for the Blue Note box set provide numbing detail about Hancock’s session work during the 60s. He backed everyone from the various members of the Blue Note roster to Latin-jazz ham Cal Tjader. In February 1963 he played on a Jackie McLean album called Vertigo, and even contributed a composition to it, “Yams.” But the most significant thing about that date was that it was the first time he worked with drummer Tony Williams, then only 17. Williams would become a crucial collaborator of Hancock’s, and both men became integral members of the Miles Davis Quintet later that year.
A month after Vertigo Hancock was back in the studio to cut his second album, My Point of View. The core group of Byrd, Williams, tenor saxist Hank Mobley, and bassist Chuck Israels was occasionally abetted by guitarist Grant Green and trombonist Grachan Moncur III in its displays of Hancock’s burgeoning skills as an arranger. The album is jammed with yet more of his memorable themes, but on “King Cobra” he explores darker, more complex harmonies than on Takin’ Off, breaking free of the usual neatly resolved chord progressions to venture into a field of unrelenting tension. That mood was prescient: two months later he began working regularly with more ambiguous material as a member of Davis’s group.
His participation in that famous quintet, with its emphasis on intuition, quickly proved liberating. That August he cut Inventions & Dimensions with bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Willie Bobo, and percussionist Oswaldo “Chihuahua” Martinez. With one exception Hancock and company made the album without any prewritten material, and although rhythmically, harmonically, and melodically it’s not particularly jarring–no free jazz here–the music bristles with an exciting spontaneity. On “Succotash,” for instance, Hancock furrows deep grooves over Chambers’s ostinato, leaning hard into repetitive chording and tangled skeins of notes. It was a bold move at the time for someone in the mainstream to wing it this way.
In June 1964 he recorded Empyrean Isles with Hubbard, Williams, and bassist Ron Carter, the latter two of whom by then were also with Davis. The most dramatic example of his growing interest in unfettered expression is “The Egg,” for which he wrote only a short trumpet melody. Hancock gives Hubbard a wide-open horizon and the trumpeter runs the length of it, interjecting his own strong-willed melodies, downward spirals, and frantic wails. Carter’s abstract solo is a time stopper; Williams offers a quiet but equally meter-defying commentary on it while Hancock limns the leaden arco tones with gently articulated minor chords that lead into his own solo, during which the rhythm section slides into a nice swing.
“Survival of the Fittest,” from Hancock’s classic 1965 album, Maiden Voyage, is even more impressive: so natural and precise are the interactions of Hubbard, Carter, Williams, and tenor saxist George Coleman that they seem to have–to borrow a Davis title–“E.S.P.” But most of the other tunes on the album are decidedly more compositional. Hancock’s melodies are still indelible, but the structures are light years away from the eloquent blues tunes he was writing only a few years earlier. The unusual harmonies of the pretty ballad “Dolphin Dance,” for instance, give even the tenderest solo an elusive quality. The influence of the Davis group is heavy–the title track is built around a piano figure Hancock created on the Davis performance of “Eighty-One.” The album was a hit by jazz standards, and Hancock increased sales further by licensing the tune “Maiden Voyage” for a Yardley perfumes TV commercial.
Busy with Davis and a spate of session work, Hancock didn’t cut another album until Speak Like a Child in 1968. It was characterized by the cool brass sound of Thad Jones on flugelhorn, Peter Phillips on bass trombone, and Jerry Dodgion on flute. The tunes were his darkest and most unsettling yet. By the time he made his final Blue Note album, The Prisoner, in 1969, Hancock had left Davis to concentrate on his solo career. He had become star enough for the fiscally conservative label to shell out for the eight-piece band he employed, the core of which–tenor saxist Joe Henderson, trumpeter Johnny Coles, and trombonist Garnett Brown–was playing in his new sextet. Although the album borders on gloppy, Hancock does take wise advantage of the band’s orchestral range on his gorgeous harmonies, airy pastel sounds cut by rhythmic and melodic tension.
While the box set includes a number of alternate takes from the sessions that produced these albums, the one true curiosity is the final selection, “Don’t Even Go There,” an electrified funk tune from an aborted 1966 session that presaged the phase Hancock would enter at the start of the new decade. The three sextet albums he cut for Warner Brothers all took that funky jazz as a starting point, and on Sextant, his first album for Columbia, the fatback grooves are there too–though well camouflaged with psychedelic freakouts that are way ahead of their time. (Their time apparently has arrived with Medeski, Martin & Wood, who cop many an abstract jam from that album.) Sextant’s commercial failure in large part prompted the breakup of the sextet, and soon after Hancock came back with a mostly new band to make the phenomenally successful proto-funk-fusion album Head Hunters.
His work since then has been overwhelmingly uneven. In 1977, after several albums of progressively slicker fusion, he turned blatantly nostalgic, making a record with the VSOP Quintet that attempted to recapture the vibe of the classic Davis quintet, with Freddie Hubbard filling in on trumpet. He continued looking backward on 1982’s Quartet (featuring new sensation Wynton Marsalis), a catalyst for the conservative neobop movement. Just a year later he made Future Shock, the collaboration with Bill Laswell that yielded the hip-hop crossover hit “Rockit.” The late 80s found him anticipating the world-music explosion by collaborating with Gambian griot Foday Musa Suso, while in 1996 he led the charge to treat pop songs by the likes of Babyface and the Eagles as The New Standard.
While most of Hancock’s commercial efforts are not without merit, they all seem tainted in one way or another by this desire to produce “events.” The much celebrated 1 + 1, Hancock’s 1997 duo album with Wayne Shorter, contained its fair share of muted introspection and subdued beauty, but by and large the big idea of the album deflected attention from its actual ho-hum content. That goes double for the new Gershwin’s World, a high-profile contribution to the long, profitable celebration of Gershwin’s centennial that mixes the composer’s own popular songs and orchestral works with music by those he admired: Ellington, Ravel, W.C. Handy, and stride-piano master James P. Johnson. Almost every one of the 14 selections was recorded with a different backing group and guest star. There are some fine performances by James Carter, Wayne Shorter, and Joni Mitchell, and we get a funky second-line-shuffle take on Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” with Stevie Wonder on vocals and harmonica. We even get a taste of Hancock’s classical chops on the second movement of Ravel’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G. But the album is about concept first and performances second, and I’ll take concentrated vision over clever dilettantism any day.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Francis Wolff.