We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Before pianist Herbie Hancock explored the music of George Gershwin on his recent tribute, Gershwin’s World, he created a bold new world of his own in his formative years with Blue Note records: an impressionistic landscape, verging on the avant-garde, upon the bedrock of hard bop. The six-CD box set, The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions, documents Hancock’s eight-year journey from rollicking swinger to innovative stylist, and inserts a few notable gems from his dates with Donald Byrd, Jackie McLean, Wayne Shorter, and Bobby Hutcherson. Even though the set tampers with the original sequence of Hancock’s seven Blue Note albums, its mainly chronological order charts the pianist’s growth as a brilliant instrumentalist and composer.
In 1960, Hancock left his hometown of Chicago for the Bronx under the tutelage of trumpeter Donald Byrd. Byrd had hired Hancock, then only 21 years old, to fill a homesick Duke Pearson’s shoes during a Christmas engagement at Chicago’s Bird House. Impressed by his deft technique and sight-reading acumen, Byrd later fired Pearson and brought Hancock on as a full-fledged member of his band.
Hancock recorded his first Blue Note session with Byrd in April 1961, but it wasn’t released until 1979, as Byrd’s Chant. Their second session, recorded in September 1961 at Rudy Van Gelder’s legendary New Jersey studio, yielded Byrd’s 1962 release Royal Flush, which contain Hancock’s first recorded original, “Requiem.”
Soul jazz was at its height when Hancock arrived at Blue Note. The music successfully grounded the improvisational fire of bebop with danceable rhythms and singable melodies. This fusion prototype gave rise to a handful of jazz-pop classics for a host of Blue Note artists such as Jimmy Smith, Lee Morgan, and Horace Silver, simultaneously attracting the pop masses and appealing to the jazz snobs. From the get-go, Hancock showed amazing versatility. He could swing with a bluesy swagger, improvise fluidly, and render enchanting ballads. Those blues-soaked sessions influenced Hancock’s first two albums, which bore two infectious originals that became hallmarks of the soul-jazz era: Takin’ Off’s “Watermelon Man” (1962) and My Point of View’s “Blind Man, Blind Man” (1963) helped define soul jazz’s boogaloo spirit; Hancock anchored the compositions with catchy blues-inflected riffs while the horns delivered almost radio-friendly melodies. But, despite their pop sensibilities and stellar castsincluding tenor saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Hank Mobley, as well as Byrdthose first two records lacked thematic continuity, and, to a lesser degree, originality.
In the two months that followed the recording of My Point of View, Hancock played on two landmark releases, Kenny Dorham’s Una Mas and Miles Davis’ Seven Steps to Heaven. Dorham’s record captured perfectly the essence of the Blue Note sound, but it was with Miles that Hancock’s gifts as a conceptualist and improviser began to solidify. Coincidentally, Hancock was also gigging with Eric Dolphy, whom Miles very publicly despised. Dolphy’s freer improvisations and unorthodox executions were quite at odds with Miles’ comparatively erudite poise, but somehow the two influences came together wonderfully on Hancock’s third recordhis first concept album1963’s Inventions & Dimensions.
Ditching the Motown-ish rhythms and hooky horn charts from the previous two recordings, Inventions & Dimensions found Hancock in a stark minimalist setting with bassist Paul Chambers and Latin percussionists Osvaldo Martinez and Willie Bobo. With no preset chord changes or explicit melody, the album almost entirely emphasizes group improvisation. It isn’t exactly unbridled abandon, but it isn’t easily digestible, either. Compared with the leisurely stance on his previous albums, Hancock’s playing had turned restlessfragmented phrases and hammering attackswhile his solos had become more complex and menacing. And though Inventions & Dimensions didn’t produce anything nearly as contagious as “Watermelon Man,” it bore one of Hancock’s most elegant compositions, “Mimosa.” This spellbinding number features Hancock unraveling a melody embellished with impressionistic figures on top of hypnotic bolero rhythm; it provides this set’s best showcase for Hancock’s deft technique and melodic sense, and, moreover, illustrates his mastery at composing crystalline ballads.
If Hancock seemed preoccupied with minimalism on Inventions & Dimensions, his last Blue Note album, 1969’s The Prisoner, found him obsessed with form and harmony. He heavy-handedly employed an intriguing horn section of bass trombones, fluegelhorn, alto flute, and bass clarinet to create a dense orchestral feel that hinted at Duke Ellington and Charles Mingusand presaged his early forays into fusion with his sextet Mwandishi. The woozy melodies and opaque horn charts create both a sense of jolting urgency on “The Prisoner” and a pastoral backdrop on the alluring “I Have a Dream.” Hancock’s playing is alternately florid and thorny. Tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, however, nearly steals the show from Hancock with his fiery solos on “The Prisoner” and “He Who Lives in Fear.” This politically charged album marked a departure for Hancock from both Blue Note and post-bop, after which he segued to a handful of Warner Bros. records and film scores.
Hancock’s two greatest Blue Note triumphs, however, 1964’s Empyrean Isles and 1965’s Maiden Voyage, both were recorded while Hancock was playing in Miles Davis’ legendary ’60s quintet. Hancock, along with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, developed deep empathy on these albums; it’s obvious that Hancock was incorporating some of Miles’ ideas about form, group interaction, and spatial awareness into his own music.
Freddie Hubbard’s cornet shares center stage with Hancock on Empyrean Isles. His solos crackle jubilantly on “One Finger Snap” and the moody “Oliloqui Valley.” Hancock also revisits soul jazz on this date, with the rolling “Cantaloupe Island”which sounds out of place alongside the record’s markedly less danceable songs. But Hancock also upped the ante on sheer improvisation with “The Egg,” perhaps the most foreboding and challenging composition in Hancock’s Blue Note history.
A year later, Hubbard switched to trumpet, and tenor saxophonist George Colemanwhom Williams urged Miles to fire from his own band because he was too perfect a playerjoined the ensemble to record Hancock’s seminal Maiden Voyage. Romantic and transportive, the record conjures mysterious marine imagery on such wonderful compositions as the meditative “Maiden Voyage” and the probing “The Eye of the Hurricane.” Like Miles’ “Nefertiti,” the title track’s simple melody gives the illusion of immediate recognition. Hubbard and Coleman play the melody in unison as Hancock punctuates it with block chords. The interactions among the rhythm section and Hubbard and Coleman’s gorgeous solos spool out with such subtle grace that the solos’ departure from the melody is almost unnoticeable.
The original liner notes from 1968’s Speak Like a Child remark that the record was a successor to Maiden Voyage, but the dark tonalities from the usual combination of fluegelhorn, bass trombone, and alto flute reveal it as more a transitional album to the arty Prisoner. Dissonant harmonies suggest tension and turmoil on Hancock’s aptly titled “Riot” and cushion the bossa nova-tinged title track exotically. Even with the presence of Ron Carter, retained from the previous two sessions, the group empathy of Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage is conspicuously absent. Drummer Mickey Roker proved adept at driving the ensemble, but didn’t provide anything like the fiery polyrhythms of Tony Williams. Speak Like a Child offers brief glimpses of brilliance, but it’s clearly an album whose parts are greater than their sum.
Much the same goes for the collection’s 12 alternate takes, five selections from other dates, and one original from an unrealized R&B album:They don’t really provide greater insights into Hancock’s vision as an instrumentalist and composer. Alone, the seven albums from the Blue Note period reflect a time of creative calmbefore he delved into electronics and a chaos of fusionand provide durable testament to his artistry. CP