Perhaps best known by jazz fans for his Blue Note albums and work with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock’s albums over the last 60 years defy classification and have seen him win legions of listeners who would not usually consider themselves jazz aficionados.
In this article we pick 10 Herbie Hancock songs which go some way to showcasing an artist who brought jazz – or at least a version of it – to 80s MTV and the kids who watched it!
Born Herbert Jeffrey Hancock on 12th April 1940 (yes, named after the singer and actor Herb Jeffries for those of you of a certain generation!) the young Herbie was known in his hometown of Chicago as a child prodigy.
While his background was in classical music, the young pianist developed an interest in jazz while in his early teens.
With no formal tuition in the style, Hancock learned from listening to the records of legendary jazz pianists like Erroll Garner, George Shearing and Bill Evans. Whilst this helped develop an ear for the intricate harmonies that would resurface in many of his songs, he also credited non-jazz sources (such as vocal group The Hi-Lo’s) with this skill.
Alongside this self-education, Hancock sought out lessons from the pianist Chris Anderson. For a musician who was born a decade later than many of the jazz greats he idolised, Anderson provided a valuable link to these players, not least through his work playing with Charlie Parker and Von Freeman in the 1940s.
All these influences and experiences went into the melting pot to create what, on reflection, would be one of the most pioneering and versatile musicians in history.
In full knowledge that no single list of songs can do justice to such a wide and varied catalogue, here are 10 Herbie Hancock songs which document his journey as a composer and musician…
From the album Takin’ Off (1962)
Not many jazz musicians can count an original composition on their debut album as one of the most influential tunes of the era.
But that’s exactly what Hancock did with the song Watermelon Man, a 16-bar blues which opened his 1962 Blue Note debut Takin’ Off.
As he mentioned in the book Highway 61 Revisited, “I remember the cry of the watermelon man making the rounds through the back streets and alleys of Chicago. The wheels of his wagon beat out the rhythm on the cobblestones.”
With its infectious riff and catchy melody, it made the top 100 in the US singles charts, featuring a killer funky blues solo from veteran tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon.
Such was the appeal of this Herbie Hancock song – both to the composer and the wider public – that he would explore it again a decade later on his groundbreaking Head Hunters album.
And What If I Don’t Know
From the album My Point of View (1963)
Hancock turned to a very different type of blues just a year later.
Always evolving as a composer, Herbie Hancock’s sophomore Blue Note release My Point of View featured an expanded frontline, with three horns giving the pianist much more scope.
The line-up gives plenty of colour to the theme of his original composition And What If I Don’t Know, backed up by the excellent guitarist Grant Green.
Such is the strength of the song that solos are brief; hard bop trumpeter (and former boss) Donald Byrd is particularly effectively, as is the laid-back and rhythmically adroit Hank Mobley.
Just two months after the recording session, Hancock was recruited by Miles Davis himself to join what became known as The Second Great Quintet.
From the album Empyrean Isles (1964)
Herbie Hancock’s time in Miles Davis’ band was by no means an opportunity to slack off.
Quite the opposite; he found a surprising amount of time to record his own albums for Blue Note in this period, including the now-legendary Empyrean Isles in 1964.
The album – which enlists his Miles bandmates Ron Carter (bass) and Tony Williams (drums) gave us one of the most famous Herbie Hancock songs of all time in Cantaloupe Island.
Stripping the line-up back to a quartet and bringing back Freddie Hubbard (last heard on the Takin’ Off album) was an inspired choice. Hubbard – who also played cornet on the session – sounds delightfully taut, adding an appealing underlying tension to the music.
With a rolling ostinato from the piano, this is another piece that once heard is not easily forgotten, and quite rightly has acquired jazz standard status.
As with Watermelon Man, the song was given an electric reworking in the 1970s before Cantaloupe Island reached a whole new audience in the 1990s when jazz rap group Us3 used a sample from it in their song “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”.
From the album Maiden Voyage (1965)
Hancock kept the Miles Davis rhythm section together for his 5th Blue Note album in 1965, which gave us one of the early ‘concept albums’ in jazz.
The nautical-themed record was immediately hailed as a major achievement by the pianist, yielding no less than three compositions (by our count!) that have entered the standard repertoire; the lovely jazz ballad ‘Dolphin Dance’ was of course one of them.
Apparently inspired by the Count Basie song Shiny Stockings (listen to them back to back!) Hancock must take full credit for producing such memorable melodies within a framework that also permit such probing solos.
All this in the context of such youth; as The Penguin Guide To Jazz pointed out, the record was “a colossal achievement from a man still just 24 years old”.
Ostinato (Suite for Angela)
From the album Mwandishi (1971)
Perhaps fittingly for a musician who graduated Grinnell College with a degree in electric engineering, the 1970s saw Herbie Hancock go deeper with his explorations of electric instruments.
Fresh from his jazz fusion work with Miles Davis (included the legendary Bitches Brew), he left his Blue Note days far behind with the release of Mwandishi in 1971, playing exclusively on electric piano and fender rhodes.
Highly percussive, with the standout Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet, the song Ostinato (Suite for Angela) showcases a dark and complex side to his work as a composer.
It’s 15/8 time signature provides a meditative (yet slightly disturbing) backdrop to a piece dedicated to Marxist and feminist activist, author and academic Angela Yvonne Davis.
From the album Sextant (1973)
Ever-evolving as an artist, elements of the popular funk music of the day entered Hancocks compositional orbit as the 70s progressed, with the use of electronics (synthesizers, keyboards…) became more commonplace.
The blend of these with acoustic instruments, including saxophonist and flautist Bennie Maupin, trumpeter Eddie Henderson and Julian Priester on trombone, gives the music a fascinating textural and exploratory edge.
Rain Dance, from the 1973 album Sextant, is our recommended listening tip from a recording which was considered a commercial flop at the time, yet received a growing number of plaudits in the subsequent years, with Paste Magazine hailing it an “uncompromising avant-funk masterpiece”.
From the album Head Hunters (1973)
If the late 60s and early 70s marked Hancocks evolution towards electronics and groove, everything seemed to come together on Head Hunters.
The record featured a completely new band that pulled Hancock the keyboard player into sharp focus and gave a whole generation of non-jazz fans their token jazz disc.
With its tight rhythm section and strong groove, ‘Chameleon’ was not just the standout track from the album, but of the whole era.
From the punchy saxophone playing of Bennie Maupin (the only survivor from the previous albums), to rock-solid drumming and virtuosic synthesizer solos, the album was a huge commercial and artistic success for Herbie Hancock.
I Thought It Was You
From the album Sunlight (1978)
The late 70s and early 80s saw Hancock diving deeper down the rabbit hole of funk and disco, pushing the use of electronics, adding vocals and generally building his star appeal.
The 1978 album Sunlight was squarely aimed at radio play and a commercial market, with Herbie’s synthesised vocals wafting out through a Sennheiser vocoder.
While having a playing time of almost nine minutes, ‘I Thought It Was You’ was edited down and released as single, to considerable chart success.
From the album Mr Hands (1980)
If some of Hancock’s 70s work strayed too far from jazz for many hardcore fans, the elements of improvisation and piano solos that seemed to be missing were back by 1980 for the release of Mr Hands, his 24th studio album.
Whilst still deep in electric territory (with Hancock by now using Apple computers and software) his standout cascading solo over the somewhat inflexible electric bass guitar riff of Shiftless Shuffle perhaps shows why the song was originally suggested (and disregarded) for the Head Hunters album.
From the album Future Shock (1983)
With its heavy rock beat and bizarre official music video, Future Shock (and the song Rockit) is possibly the furthest Hancock has gone from jazz improvisation.
It might not appeal to fans of Hancocks Blue Note work, but with turntables scratching, a fat repetitive bass line and on-repeat play on MTV, it was regarded as a hit with its joyous melange of sounds and beats.
Round up: Discover More Herbie Hancock Songs
Of course, Herbie Hancock’s songs in the mid-1980s don’t complete the story…
Still going strong in 2024, the subsequent years saw him writing Hollywood film scores and even appearing in the film Round Midnight, before gravitating back to the more acoustic style of jazz which made his name.
He’s paid musical tribute to a whole host of names from George Gershwin to Joni Mitchell and worked with artists including Sting, Santana, Annie Lennox and Christina Aguilera.
Through his educational work, as well as projects which have seen him dip into everything from acid jazz to West African music, he has established himself as something of a grandfather of the music scene, something summed up in 2016 with the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Looking for more?
With more than 50 albums under his own name, not to mention all the others he’s appeared on, your local music store or streaming platform is full of the Herbie Hancock songs!
We hope you’ll use these 10 selected tracks as a springboard to dive into the rest of his discography…