most important pianists and keyboard stylists for sixty years, and this does not take into consideration his stature as a composer. has been one of the
The Chicago-born Herbie Hancock was hailed as a child prodigy, playing Mozart at an early age.
As a the bebop era (Herbie was born in 1940), but by the time he made his recording debut under his own name at just twenty-two he already assimilated the language along with the hard bop of the time into his vocabulary. , he was too young for
He was looking to use this as a starting point to develop his own records who had the foresight to sign the gifted young pianist and composer. and original compositions. This he did to much acclaim, and to the benefit of
‘s Early Career
Hanock’s first for the imprint, Takin’ Off, proved that this had been a very savvy decision on the part of founders, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff.
The Dexter Gordon on tenor, and produced Hancock’s first classic composition, ‘Watermelon Man’. boasted a frontline of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and
The pianist’s tenure with would produce several more wonderful albums including in 1964 which is arguably Hancock’s finest achievement, bringing forth more compositions that would come to be regarded as standards such as ‘Dolphin Dance’ and ‘The Eye Of The Hurricane’.
As if this was not enough to put him in pole position as one of the leading lights on the . scene, he was also at this time a member of the
The band is now known as the trumpeter’s Second Great Quintet, with on tenor, bassist Ron Carter the seventeen-year-old Tony Williams on drums.
With Miles, Hancock pushed his playing to the limits.
With the famous Live At The Plugged Nickel recorded in 1965 the quintet had taken the art of small group improvisation based on standards as far, it could go with the group’s use of ‘time, no changes’.
Herbie would stay with Miles for another three years as the trumpeter’s guitar along with rock rhythms to push the boundaries of . evolved into something altogether new, using original tunes from the band and instruments like and
Although he had officially left the band, Hancock watched Miles’ with interest taking note of developments such as the ground-breaking recordings, In A and Bitches Brew.
Hancock furthered his own interest in the use of the and in the burgeoning fusion that was becoming ever more present with bands like John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report – fronted by and keyboard maestro Josef Zawinul (all of whom had played on Miles’ recent albums).
Hancock recorded the 1969 Fat Albert Rotunda and followed this with two more recordings Mwandishi and Crossings (1970 and 1971 respectively) for his new label Warner.
This full tilt immersion in fusion would find its most perfect form for Hancock in the epoch-making .
: A Best Selling
Recorded and released in the last quarter of 1973, the quick turnaround between laying down the tracks and the hitting the record shops was quite a feat.
biggest-selling albums of all time. proved to be a big hit and one of the
Featuring and Hancock’s trademark , the release of the was a defining moment in both Hanock’s career and in the history of . , elements of
The only survivor from the early Warner albums is saxophonist/ clarinettist and flautist, and his contribution is crucial to the success of the set.
His playing on tenor is tough with a big full sound that punches through the rhythm section while his playing on the higher-pitched saxello and soprano saxophones dominate, riding above keyboards, and percussion, and adding excitement and tension to the .
Of the four titles recorded, Hancock revisits ‘Watermelon Man‘ from his debut with a completely fresh arrangement. The slow groove that comes in after the introduction perfectly suits Maupin’s reading of the melody on soprano.
Understated yet totally in tune with Herbie’s updated voicings and score, ‘The closing ‘Vein Melter’ is a cleverly worked composition with its gentle introduction featuring Maupin’s before the string sounds from the synthesizers enhance the dreamy and reflective nature of the piece. Hancock follows this with an ethereal contribution that is simultaneously a solo, and not a solo.
However, the real meat and drink are to be found in ‘Sly’ – a tribute to of Sly and The – and the fifteen-minute tour de force, ‘Chameleon’.
The opening riff sets things up for the duration but what is clever is that the emphasis on the groove is always present but never dominating.
Throughout the solo, there is a judicious use of the pitch bend wheel but the shrillness of the electronic instrument in the mix shows that the technology lags behind the inventiveness of the player.
Order is quickly restored at around the halfway mark when Hancock switches to the with a fine solo.
As the solo gives way to the punchy theme statement that characterises ‘Chameleon’ with the inventive use of synth backdrops, Maupin gets an all too brief solo on tenor sax that is every bit as inventive as that of the leader.
‘Sly’ opens with another great melody, taken at a steady yet slow tempo, and some lovely soprano playing.
This gives way to another brief and punchy theme before the tempo and rhythmic urgency move up a gear and , this time on saxello, kicks up a storm in his most impassioned outing of the set.
Hancock follows with his solo again on the which allows him to be more rhythmically adventuress and flowing that the synthesizers of the time could, and he digs in hard. This is another big number and pushes the and the musicians in a most satisfying performance.
In only a few short years after the release of the fusion revolution was not so much running at full steam ahead but running out of steam. Viewed with suspicion by the , and in lesser hands was often plagued by excessive displays of virtuosity that bordered on the self-indulgent.
However, fifty years on Head Hunters by Herbie Hancock is an that, although not without its flaws, promised much and delivered.
Nick Lea is a British jazz writer who has been publishing articles, interviews and news about jazz for more than 20 years. He is editor and writer for Jazzviews.net