Friday, September 19, 2008


In a nearly 50-year recordingcareer filled with many diverse achievements and awards, Herbie Hancock was honored for the first time with a GRAMMY for Album Of The Year. The last time -- and the only other time -- a jazz album garnered this top award was in 1964 when Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto won for Getz/Gilberto.

Beginning in 1962 with his Blue Note album Takin' Off, Hancock has recorded some 50 albums as a leader. By far his most prolific period was when he was signed to Columbia Records from 1972 to 1988. At the same time as he was recording for CBS/Columbia in the U.S. he had a separate contract with CBS/SONY in Japan. Between the two affiliations he recorded some 30
albums in these years.

The albums he made for Columbia in the U.S. were mostly electric and mixed elements of jazz with R&B, Dance and Pop. He played an arsenal of keyboards, and also was one of the first musicians to utilize a new piece of equipment called a Vocoder. The Vocoder was a kind of synthesized voice processor through which he sang -- on Sunlight (1978) and a few other albums. Other recordings during this period used outside vocalists. Many of these records enjoyed airplay on non-jazz formats and also charted. Several of the U.S. titles have had only limited availability on CD, often just as imports.

Digital providers will now have the following albums available: Death Wish / Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1974), Sunlight (1978), Feets Don't Fail Me Now (1978), Monster (1980), Mr. Hands (1980), Magic Windows (1981), Lite Me Up (1981) and Village Life (1984). There were also two electric albums made for CBS/SONY that have never been released outside
of Japan -- Flood (1975) and Direct Step (1978).

Herbie's arrangement with CBS/SONY made it possible for him to make straight ahead acoustic jazz albums for release in the Japanese market, at the same time he was making electric albums in the U.S. which were aimed at a much larger audience. All of the acoustic albums featured long-time musical companions bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, and there were also several others that added trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist Wayne Shorter to that same rhythm section.

In 1974 he recorded Dedication, his first album for CBS/SONY Japan. This album, unique in his discography, was half solo acoustic piano and half electric keyboards. The acoustic first side included extended re-workings of two of his classic compositions, "Maiden Voyage" and "Dolphin Dance," while the second side featured multiple keyboard workouts on another classic -- "Cantaloupe Island" -- and a new piece called "Nobu."

The so-called Mwandishi Sextet -- trumpeter Eddie Henderson, trombonist Julian Priester, multi-reed player Bennie Maupin, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Hart -- recorded three adventurous, often abstract, electric albums for Warner Brothers and Columbia between 1970 and 1972. The Headhunters, Herbie's second and more funk/groove oriented electric band,
then found great commercial success with three highly influential albums made for Columbia between 1973 and 1975 -- Headhunters, Thrust and Man-Child. Some U.S. fans got to hear this band live in person but unless they bought an expensive import they did not get to hear Flood, originally a Japanese only double LP live album featuring the best known Headhunters line-up -- Benny Maupin on reeds, Paul Jackson on bass, Mike Clark on drums, and Bill Summers on percussion. Highly charged versions of "Chameleon," and "Hang Up Your Hangups" highlight what is one of the most exciting live albums of Hancock's career.

Another unique electric album recorded for the Japanese market was Direct Step (1978). This title was recorded direct-to-disc, an audiophile format that gained some attention around that time. Instead of recording first on tape and then going through the rest of the disc-cutting LP mastering process, the recording was done directly to a vinyl-disc cutting lathe. Bypassing the tape step often resulted in superior sound which led in this case to "Direct Step" being chosen as one of the first CDs to be issued when the CD format was introduced in the early '80s.

Two other albums which stand out from his U.S. releases in the late 1970s and early 1980s are Mr. Hands and Village Life. The overlooked Mr. Hands (1980) is an all-instrumental album done in the middle of the period when most of his albums were vocal-oriented. Each track features Herbie on multiple keyboards with a different ensemble including, among others, Jaco Pastorius, Paul Jackson, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Harvey Mason, Bill Summers and Sheila E. Village Life (1984) is a unique duet album where Herbie plays various keyboards and is joined by African kora player Foday Musa Soso. Soso had also appeared on Herbie's previous Columbia release Sound System (1984) and collaborated with Herbie again on the 1987 live album for Verve called Jazz Africa.

At the Newport Jazz Festival NY in 1976 there was a three-part retrospective concert of Herbie's music featuring the Mwandishi Sextet, the latest edition of The Headhunters band which included guitarists Wah Wah Watson and Ray Parker, and a specially-assembled acoustic band including Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Originally Herbie had asked Miles Davis to participate in the acoustic part of the program but when Miles declined he asked Hubbard, who had played on three of his key Blue Note albums. The entire evening, recorded by Columbia U.S. and released under the title V.S.O.P., is now available for the first time at iTunes and other digital providers. V.S.O.P., which stood for Very Special One-Time Performance, ironically ended up also being the first part of the name of V.S.O.P. The Quintet, as the band with Hubbard, Shorter, Carter and Williams came to be known.

Due to the success of the Newport/NY concert they ended up going on tour in the U.S. and Japan, and also recorded four more albums. Three of those albums now make their first appearance digitally. Tempest In A Colosseum, which has never been released in any format outside of Japan, comes from a live show at the Denen Colosseum in Tokyo and includes versions of mostly well-known compositions by all of the band members including an outstanding version of "Maiden Voyage." Live Under The Sky, which finally saw a U.S. release as a double CD in 2004, was also recorded live in Japan. And Five Stars, the only studio album the band made, includes a Hancock composition that he only recorded once called "Fingerpainting" plus rarely recorded tunes by Tony Williams ("Mutants On The Beach") and Wayne Shorter ("Circe.")

The rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams is unquestionably one of the greatest in the history of jazz. Miles Davis brought these three musicians together for the first time in 1963 for his Seven Steps To Heaven (Columbia) album and they went on to make a dozen more albums with Miles between 1963 and 1968. They also performed together on two of Herbie's classic Blue Notes -- Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage, but surprisingly never made a trio album during this very active time period. The first trio sessions with these three musicians took place on July 13, 1977 in San Francisco, when they actually recorded two albums in one day -- The Herbie Hancock Trio for CBS/SONY, and Third Plane, under Ron Carter's name, for Milestone. The Herbie Hancock Trio album is notable for the inclusion of three striking Hancock compositions which he never recorded again -- "Watch It," "Watcha Waitin' For," and "Look," plus an extended version of his classic "Speak Like A Child."

And in 1981, the trio did one more album for CBS/SONY which included "Dolphin Dance," a tune each by Ron and Tony, and a couple of standards. The two CBS albums, neither of which were ever released in the U.S. in any format, are now available digitally. As of September 16th, all thirty albums Herbie Hancock recorded as a leader for Columbia Records and its Japanese affiliate CBS/SONY between 1972 and 1988 will be available through digital providers.

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