Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock has been one of the longest-standing fixtures on the jazz scene, rising to prominence in the early 60s and maintaining his position as jazz royalty right through to the present day.
In this article we dive deeper into his early success Maiden Voyage, one of the most important jazz albums in history.
The 1960’s was a turbulent time for jazz, free jazz or the “new thing” as it had become known, had deeply divided both musicians and fans, and the audience for the music was falling away.
However, despite apparent adversity there was much fine music produced throughout the decade, with a small faction of artists that were able to look at the bigger picture and taking elements from the diverse musical culture evolving around them and using to create jazz that was uniquely their own.
Inevitably one of the musicians leading the charge was Miles Davis, and perhaps by association the young players within his current quintet also found themselves as forerunners of new forms of expression.
Harnessing what had gone before along with an ear for what was currently new on the music scene, there was an air of excitement and hope for the music with the promise of something new on the horizon.
If the jazz rock and fusion revolution was still a few years away, acoustic jazz was very much still the order of the day and predominantly small groups were proving to lead the way forward in terms of new ways of improvising and group interplay.
One of the musicians that was not afraid to out himself out there was Herbie Hancock.
As a member of what was to become known as Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet, the pianist was already finding himself much in the limelight, and had already built quite an impressive discography under his own name for Blue Note with his remarkable debut album Takin’ Off (1962).
It featured Dexter Gordon and Freddie Hubbard, and the even better Empyrean Isles (1964) again with Hubbard on trumpet along with his colleagues from the Davis Quintet, Ron Carter on bass and the incredible young drummer, Tony Williams.
But as good as these records were, the jewel in Hancock’s crown was recorded the following year when in March 1965 the pianist went into the studio with Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard who was joined in the frontline by tenor saxophonist George Coleman to record Maiden Voyage.
Another Davis alumni, Coleman had played on the albums Seven Steps To Heaven (1963), and the two classic live recordings My Funny Valentine and Four & More (1964), and was therefore well aware of the methods of this exceptional rhythm section.
The Lost Tapes
As with all great recordings, all is not always as it seems and it is possible that the music might have been quite different.
The original date for the session was 11th March, 1965 with two major differences: Freddie Hubbard is listed on cornet not trumpet, and the drummer was Stu Martin.
This information was gleaned from the Blue Note files, and allegedly the tracks ‘Maiden Voyage’, Little One’ and ‘Dolphin Dance’ were recorded. Anything else is pure speculation, as no tapes of the session have ever been found.
Reconvening on 17th March, with Hubbard on trumpet and Tony Williams at the drums, the five pieces that make up the album were recorded in a single day’s recording.
The music sounds nothing like Miles’ band, despite it comprising three fifths of his Quintet.
This is partly down to the fact that the three musicians, Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams had spent so much time on the bandstand together and had such a rapport that they could take the music just about anywhere they wanted with barely a spoken word uttered.
Also, the material presented was so new and vibrant, full of intricacy, and yet with enough space and freedom for the music to be opened up and thoroughly explored for fresh ideas by the assembled cast.
Of the frontline, if Hubbard was never wholly committed to free jazz he had played an important part in Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz album in 1960, and also Out To Lunch by Eric Dolphy recorded in 1964.
George Coleman had made his reputation playing with organist, Jimmy Smith.
He was also associated with the hard bop school along with Lee Morgan, Curtis Fuller, and Kenny Burrell.
Coleman played with a big expressive sound that transcended hard bop but like Hubbard was never totally free, but unlike the trumpeter perhaps ventured a little further out in his solos using his innate sense of melody, rhythm and harmony.
The Making of Maiden Voyage
With the line up established, Herbie took the musicians in to the studio and recorded one of the most influential albums of the era.
The music recorded has an elusive and vulnerable quality coupled with a directness and pent up aggression that are polar opposites in the emotional content of the compositions.
However there is a homogeneity that is at once reassuring, intriguing and quietly disturbing.
Taking it’s concept and inspiration from the sea and folkloric tales of generations of seafarers, the music often retains the spaciousness associated with the sea, making reference to both the tranquility of the waves and fury of the ocean storms.
Opening with the title track certainly gives the impression of the calm and beauty of the sea with the gentle theme and accompaniment from the rhythm section.
Coleman is first up to solo and his tenor lines and tough yet pliable tone spin out a delectably melodic solo.
This is also right up Hubbard’s street, and his solo matches the saxophonist for ingenuity and his control in the trumpet’s upper register creates some drama.
For his solo Herbie retains the left hand motif that has defined the opening melody, embellishing it with some deft single note runs in the right hand before the theme is gradually played out.
‘The Eye Of The Hurricane‘ is a 12-bar blues and a real pot boiler. The theme positively exploded with tension driven furiously by Tony Williams.
Freddie Hubbard solos with some fast disjointed phrases that then resolve into a lucid and coherent solo that also makes use of multiphones.
Taking up the baton, Coleman follows with a solo that seems to ride above Williams’s propulsive cymbal work, and developing his ideas and phrases at his own pace, not to be pushed along by the drummer’s forward momentum.
William’s masterful cymbal playing is also a feature of the rubato ballad, ‘Little One’. Neither horn seems to follow a traditional ballad in there solos, but instead find ways for their contributions to work alongside the rhythm section creating the sense of both tension and space.
Hancock’s solo picks up this feeling, and his playing is economical yet never straying too far from the concept laid out in the opening bars of the tune. ‘Little One’ was also recorded by Miles Davis for his ESP album released the same year.
‘Survival Of The Fittest‘ again picks up on some the ferocity heard on ‘Hurricane’, yet places a strong emphasis on improvisation with a freedom that is not heard on the other titles, yet is still rooted in the tradition.
Once again the drummer’s contribution is central to the success of the composition, his broiling drum patterns ever changing pushing the soloists ever harder.
Coleman relishes this environment and his solo matches the drummer for invention and rhythmic ingenuity working both with and against Williams.
After the turbulence of ‘Survival’ the album concludes where is began, with a calmness that draws the listener into the romance of the sea with ‘Dolphin Dance’.
The music exudes a tranquility that belies the ingenuous form employed by Hancock in its construction with vamps, modulations and cadences.
Despite the tricky nature of the tune and its harmonies both Hubbard and Coleman turn out fine solos. Herbie also is right on the money, and one should also mention bassist, Ron Carter, who is a model of good taste and anchor man throughout.
It is all to easy to overlook his role amidst the drama and tension from Williams, and the horns, but listen carefully and you can hear how Carter steers this particular ship on its maiden voyage.
The Eye Of The Hurricane
Survival Of The Fittest
Personnel: Herbie Hancock (piano); Freddie Hubbard (trumpet); George Coleman (tenor saxophone); Ron Carter (bass); Tony Williams (drums)
Recorded: March 17, 1965
Released: 1965, Blue Note
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