In Ten Tracks: Herbie Hancock

A selection of Herbie Hancock tracks that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mix tapes and playlists. Not necessarily stuff you’ll find on an artist’s Greatest Hits collection.

Cantaloupe Island Hard bop/soul-jazz classic groove that’s both subtle and obsessive. Ron Carter and Tony Williams lay the groove down and Herbie slides right in with his soulful, gospel-tinged piano figure that recalls Ramsey Lewis at his hippest. Freddie Hubbard plays the melody and unleashes an invigorating trumpet solo. The track was included on Hancock’s fourth Blue Note record, Empyrean Isles, and thirty years later its sample became the basis for the US3 single ‘Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)’, one of the early records to successfully mix jazz and hip hop.

Maiden Voyage  For the followup to Empyrean Isles, Herbie Hancock added tenor saxophonist George Coleman to the mix, replicating exactly the tones and moods of the Miles Davis Quintet of which he, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, were all members. A simple modal tune, ‘Maiden Voyage’ establishes the approach that Davis would take with the Quintet on albums like Miles in the Sky. A bona fide jazz standard, Hancock revealed in a 2011 interview that it was his favorite of his own compositions. Coleman and Freddie Hubbard lay down nice solos–Hubbard’s is especially well constructed and effective–and Herbie demonstrates his ability to summon energy and just as easily to allow it to ebb organically. 

Rain Dance  Hancock’s Mwandishi band, so-called because the group tool Swahili names, Mwandishi being Hancock’s, is recognized today as having been among the first jazz groups to experiment with what would become electronic and electronic music.  Not just plugging in, but integrating electronics into the soundscape both in terms of raw sound and rhythmically. “Rain Dance”, the first track on the group’s final recording, Sextant, pushes out further into the future, the most futuristic record next to Miles Davis’ On the Corner. 

Chameleon The same year that Sextant was recorded, Herbie Hancock put together a small funk band, Headhunters. Woodwind player Bennie Maupin was the only holdover member of the Mwandishi band to be part of Headhunters. The idea was simple: Four instrumental, danceable tracks that were funky and people would listen to. “Chameleon,” the opening track, became the most played jazz tune everywhere. Every high school jazz band, college marching band, wedding band, funk cover band, horn section rock band, and professional big band had an arrangement of the song. But the second half of the track tells a different story, with washes of synthetic chords, and on the second side is very different, with “Sly” presenting a smoother funk sound and “Vein Melter” a late-night candlelit mood-setter that closes things out on a decidedly mellow note.

Watermelon Man  The other track on Headhunters that I didn’t mention above, is a reworking of Hancock’s Blue Note tune “Watermelon Man.” In its original, it presents a variation on the same groove as ‘Cantaloupe Island.’ Mongo Santamaria’s popular arrangement was similar, with the addition of Latin percussion. But on Headhunters, Hancock deconstructs the tune to great effect. It begins with an introduction featuring a series of percussion and various objects, including the sounds produced blowing across bottle openings. Slowly a groove develops and rhythm figures are presented by bass and drums. The melody is presented by Benny Maupin on soprano sax, and Hancock presents an additional bridge to the tune as well as a tasty melding of electric piano and ARP synthesizer. It’s not your Dad’s ‘Watermelon Man.’

Hang Up Your Hang Ups Herbie Hancock’s followup to Headhunters, Thrust was a fine album but stuck fairly close to the format of its predecessor, offering the gorgeous slow-burner “Butterfly.” But with Man Child Hancock seemed to go all-in on creating music over a funk groove. “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” is a perfect track in that regard, creating an airtight groove that’s perfect for the dance floor, backing it up with a tight horn section and then setting loose soloists against it. This was the last recording that the Headhunters core group did, but there are guest turns aplenty, including Wah Wah Watson and Wayne Shorter. 

Death Wish (Main Theme) When you hear Herbie’s arrangements on both his Blue Note and more funk-oriented albums, you feel like it’s a cinch that he’d be doing soundtracks, and you’d be right. His Prisoner soundtrack, released by Blue Note, grafted strings and horns onto a basically small group arrangement. The synth washes on Thrust and Man Child suggest Philly Soul and blaxploitation soundtracks. Hancock brings these influences to his score for the Charles Bronson revenge saga and the results are really captivating in a way that few soundtrack albums are. 

Karabali  By 1984 Hancock had established a reputation for going back and forth between genre-pushing recordings with modern musicians and straight-ahead jazz projects with familiar names that recalled the glory days of jazz as popular music. Sound System, produced by Bill Laswell, is flawed just as most ’80s technology-driven projects are, but it shows Hancock’s willingness to experiment with the latest technology and overall it’s a pretty good record. This track is one of the most powerful and I love listening to it. 

Thieves In the Temple On The New Standard Herbie went looking for some new repertoire among recent popular hits. The idea was not new as Brad Meldhau and piano trio The Bad Plus looked to pop and rock music for inspiration as well. His take on Prince’s New Power Generation track emphasizes its funkiness while offering some of the same low key grit as earlier Hancock compositions like “Cantaloupe Island” and “Watermelon Man.” And it put Hancock’s acoustic piano playing back in the spotlight.

Blueberry Rhyme  Hancock has become known in recent years for a series of ‘projects’ that focus on the work of a certain artist as well as other music from the same time period or which influenced them. His pop music pieces The Imagine Project and The Joni Letters celebrated John Lennon and Joni Mitchell respectively. Gershwin’s World did the same for the music of George and Ira Gershwin. This track features a piano duet with Hancock and Chick Corea tackling James P. Johnson’s composition. The two pianists have a lot in common, even though their styles are quite different–both played with Miles, both helped define jazz fusion, and both were instrumental in bringing electric keyboards and other musical technology to the fore. Oh, and both are hella pianists. 

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