I missed his eightieth birthday by a day, but nonetheless, here is my humble tribute to maestro Hancock. For someone as widely beloved as he is, I feel like it’s hard to grasp the breadth of his significance because he’s been so versatile and so prolific. There are many things I appreciate about him, but the one thing I’ll focus on right now is his ability to inhabit worlds that might on the surface seem oppositional. The most obvious examples of this are genre-based (synth pop and bebop, hard funk and ethereal movie soundtracks, etc.), but it strikes me on a more molecular level. That is, even when he’s grooving (whether swing or funk or whatever else), there’s a flexibility to his harmonic and rhythmic choices that makes the music breathe; even when he’s playing things that are by definition looser, there’s a rhythmic intention and a melodic directness that make the music earthy. His unique (even while widely imitated) ability to straddle these lines is to my ear fundamental to why his personality shines through no matter the context.
To spare myself the further stress of having to choose “sub-favorites,” I’ve presented this in chronological order. I fully acknowledge that the omissions here are conspicuous. Miles Davis represented once, his electric work is fairly underrepresented, there’s nothing before 1965 and only one from the last 30 years. Some important sessions are omitted by Donald Byrd, Jackie McLean, Tony Bennett, Sam Rivers, George Benson, Lee Morgan, Kenny Burrell, Roy Ayers, Quincy Jones, Milton Nascimento, Michael Brecker, Carlos Santana, and Wes Montgomery not to mention a lot of Herbie’s own records. Ultimately this is a personal reflection, so I zoned in on tracks I can’t imagine living without (albeit omitting many within that short list as it is). Hopefully this gives some food for thought to Herbie fans and some points of entry for neophytes.
1 ) “Little One” from E.S.P. by Miles Davis (recorded 1965)
The harmonic and rhythmic elasticity of the classic and incalculably influential 1960s Miles Davis Quintet has one of its peak moments on this gorgeous, haunting Hancock composition, recorded two months later with the same earth-shaking Herbie/Ron Carter/Tony Williams rhythm section for Herbie’s Maiden Voyage record.
2 ) “502 Blues” from Adam’s Apple by Wayne Shorter (recorded 1966)
I would have trouble narrowing down to 10 if the entirety of the list were Herbie/Wayne collaborations (dating back to Donald Byrd’s underrated 1961 Free Form recording). This arrangement of a Jimmie Rowles tune is one of the greatest examples I have ever heard of the place where ethereal and bluesy meet, and to my ear most of that can be attributed to Herbie’s comping and soloing.
3 ) Theme from “Blow Up” from Oblique by Bobby Hutcherson (recorded 1967)
Herbie’s own version of this song is pretty great too, but this one (documenting Bobby and Herbie’s important relationship) is given room for the musicians to breathe and improvise. As great as “Maiden Voyage” is, this is another important (and catchy as all heck) example of Herbie’s contributions to the repertoire of modern, harmonically (relatively) static songs often referred to as modal jazz.
4 ) Riot from ”Speak Like a Child” (recorded 1968)
The first time I heard this I think smoke started coming out of my nose, so blown was my mind. The mixture of hard-swinging and elasticity I’ve described above is on such strong display here among Herbie, Ron, and Mickey Roker. Add to that the haunting and perfectly-integrated wind textures and . . . well, let’s just say that the amount of my own music that has directly or indirectly stemmed from the light bulb that went on once I heard this is mo.
5 ) Tell Me A Bedtime Story from Fat Albert Rotunda (recorded 1969)
Is it fusion? Is it straight-ahead? Do I care? Maybe, maybe, and not really. What I do care about is that this is one of the most infectious instrumental compositions I’ve ever heard, and the groove that Herbie puts on it atop the backbeat of Buster Williams and “Tootie” Heath (neither primarily associated with “electric” music) makes me smile without fail.
6 ) Intrepid Fox from Red Clay by Freddie Hubbard (recorded 1970)
During this time period, electric piano on tunes with swing feel (as opposed to funk or pop) was at its most common, and this tricky song is maybe the seminal example of that. The implication of funkiness is there, but with the same modernity that you hear on Herbie’s acoustic work – those interested in extra credit might want to compare his work on this to what he plays on acoustic piano on “Isotope” by Joe Henderson (who is also featured, burningly, on this track) from the Power to the People album, recorded less than a year prior.
7 ) “Actual Proof” from Thrust (recorded 1974)
This. Is. So. Funky. A representation of his Buddhist beliefs, this is also one of the gnarliest instrumental funk songs I’ve ever heard from anyone. Herbie’s synths and Clavinet coexist perfectly with Bennie Maupin’s flute and his soloing on Fender Rhodes is just sick.
8 ) “Dolphin Dance” from Herbie Hancock Trio with Ron Carter and Tony Williams (recorded 1981)
As much as I love the VSOP records, this may be my favorite (heresy?) among the more than a dozen post-Miles recordings of the Herbie/Ron/Tony triumvirate. The seamlessness of their transitions from straightforward to flexible in rhythm and harmony and the breathing-as-one ensemble unity they embodied are abundant on this re-recording of one of Herbie’s best loved songs (possibly my personal favorite, and I acknowledge this is a cheater’s way of getting away with omitting the Maiden Voyage album from this list).
9 ) “I Ain’t Gonna Let You Break My Heart Again from Nick of Time by Bonnie Raitt (recorded 1988)
The list of pop/mainstream artist cameos in Herbie’s dossier (whether him guesting on their records or them on his) is stunning. I left out some great ones here by Stevie Wonder (no “As?” what?), Chaka Khan, Sting, Paul Simon, and of course Joni Mitchell. This one is my favorite, a key moment on the album that brought Bonnie to a wider audience and a seminal example of Herbie’s sensitivity on ballads and his wonderful ability to accompany singers in a duo setting.
10 ) “River” from River: the Joni Letters (recorded 2007)
It feels a little weird not to include one of the numerous recordings featuring Herbie with Joni Mitchell herself, but this one (with Corinne Bailey Rae on vocals) is a particularly moving example of his relationship with Joni’s music. It is tricky to have a harmonically simple pop song absorb jazz elements without bastardizing one or both, but Herbie and the band here (featuring Wayne Shorter, Lionel Loueke, Dave Holland, and Vinnie Colaiuta) do exactly that.