Herbie Hancock belongs on the short list of musicians who’ve shaped how contemporary music sounds, period. In a career that stretches back to about 1960, Hancock has, among other achievements, defined modern jazz piano post-bebop in Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet; architected the groove-centric side of fusion; composed a soundtrack for an Antonioni masterpiece; dropped a scratch-heavy track that became an early hip-hop and electro landmark (“Rockit”); worked with non-jazz stars like Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt; and released dozens of albums, including a handful of beyond-genre essentials. An elder statesman whose hipness has never waned, he’s revered by cutting-edge artists — he’s been recruited by Thundercat and Flying Lotus — for his funkier turns. And the admiration goes both ways; Kendrick Lamar collaborator and producer Terrace Martin is a member of Hancock’s current band, on saxophone and keys.
In celebration of Hancock’s 80th birthday — he was born on April 12, 1940, in Chicago — below are eight tracks you might have missed, spanning 1964 to 2007. Hancock has penned numerous jazz standards — “Watermelon Man,” “Cantaloupe Island,” “Maiden Voyage,” “Chameleon,” “Dolphin Dance” — but his deep cuts are just as potent. Not to mention his Rolodex: The following tracks feature guest spots from Stevie Wonder, Prince, Tina Turner and electric bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius. When you’re down to try anything, everyone wants to work with you.
Inventions & Dimensions was a meeting of two concepts, undergirding postbop with a Latin rhythmic pulse. Hancock and bassist Paul Chambers were on the frontlines of midcentury modern jazz; at the time of this recording, Hancock was at the outset of his tenure in Miles’ Second Great Quintet and Chambers had recorded on Kind of Blue just four years earlier. Drummer Willie Bobo and percussionist Osvaldo “Chihuahua” Martinez were on the Latin-jazz scene, having both worked with conguero Mongo Santamaría. Tying it all together was Hancock, of course, who had played with Mongo, too. And Mongo had a massive hit with Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” in ’63.
Opening with searching acoustic piano, humming bowed bass and subtle cymbal work, “Mimosa” begins in earnest with the entrance of Martinez’s tasteful bongos. A moodily hopeful Latin piece ensues, with Hancock’s sparkling keys dancing over an embarrassment of nonpareil rhythmic support.
“Hidden Shadows” is off Sextant, the final album from Hancock’s Mwandishi crew: trumpeter Eddie Henderson, trombonist Julian Priester, saxophonist Bennie Maupin, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Hart, plus the leader on an assortment of electric keyboards (clavinet, Fender Rhodes, Mellotron, Moog), Patrick Gleeson on synthesizers and Buck Clarke on percussion. Except for Gleeson and Clarke, the members of the group were going by Swahili names at this time. Hancock was dubbed “Mwandishi,” which translates to “composer.”
From the downbeat of this 10-minute psych-jazz journey, the listener roams a post-apocalyptic wasteland of random clavinet riffs and ominous synths. The whole thing rides a funky yet uncountable bassline held down by Williams on electric. The most jarring moment of the tune arrives a little after six minutes, when Hancock drops some acoustic piano into the mix and it sounds truly alien.
Hancock’s finest band was the Headhunters, an elastic and sometimes mysterious jazz-funk ensemble featuring Maupin, electric bassist Paul Jackson, percussionist Bill Summers and either Harvey Mason or Mike Clark on drums. (Full disclosure: I’ve performed and recorded with Clark.) No matter how futuristic the music got, the grooves were always James Brown tight, meaning they had a relentless hold on your body and soul. The group reached music fans far outside of jazz; for a time, the band’s 1973 debut, Head Hunters, was the best-selling jazz album of all time.
The unit’s third album, Man-Child, veered away from the core lineup, with Hancock bringing in additional players. It might have suffered because of this, and the LP’s only true classic is the anthemic opener, “Hang Up Your Hang Ups.” But dig a little deeper and there’s the juicy funk of “Steppin’ in It,” a head-nodder marked by wah-wah guitar, simmering electric piano and a horn section. Oh, yeah, and Stevie Wonder. Halfway through, Wonder pops up on harmonica, taking a two-minute solo full of attitude and soul. The following year, Hancock repaid the favor, tossing some Fender Rhodes onto the Songs in the Key of Life track “As.”
Recorded live in Japan in the summer of ’75, Flood features the Headhunters at their peak. They’d been on tour for two years, in support of two major-label albums, and it’s just another day on the road, jamming the living daylights out of the tunes. The slow-burning “Butterfly,” co-written with Maupin and first heard on the 1974 studio album Thrust, went on to become a contemporary standard. There’s a mellow sexiness to the original recording; it’s no wonder so many artists love to play it. But the band takes “Butterfly” to new heights on Flood.
Shortly before the three-minute mark, it breaks down to just Clark’s skittering rhythms, Jackson’s effervescent bass and Hancock’s colorful electric piano. It’s a joyous trio; the sounds play and uplift, but the vibe doesn’t last. Jackson plays a hypnotic line, and Hancock’s keys buzz like a bee. It’s the sound of a band unafraid to explore the darkness.
Sunlight is a fascinating entry in Hancock’s discography. The first three tracks, including the exultant disco tune “I Thought It Was You,” feature the leader singing through a vocoder, and the remaining two tracks reunite Hancock with players from earlier situations. The slinky “No Means Yes” finds Hancock jumping in with the original Headhunters lineup of bassist Paul Jackson, drummer Harvey Mason and percussionist Bill Summers. The intense “Good Question” boasts familiar faces from all over the map, including Summers, Patrick Gleeson on synth, Jaco Pastorius (Hancock had played on Jaco’s historic debut just two years earlier) and Hancock’s Davis bandmate Tony Williams on drums. Conguero Raul Rekow is also along for the ride.
“Good Question” is the real standout. On top of three percussionists, Jaco’s bass moans and pops and Hancock’s acoustic piano slams and weaves; this is undoubtedly one of Hancock’s harder-hitting recordings. Gleeson steps in here and there with a sci-fi sound effect, adding an extra dose of anxiety to this runaway train of a piece.
Herbie Hancock means funk. Soundtracks. Avant-garde jazz. Hugely influential sideman work. But he is not known for solo piano. And yet, in 1979, perhaps in his seemingly endless quest to accomplish anything and everything, he dropped a full LP of it. And why not? He certainly was capable, as evidenced by his majestic solo turn on “Maiden Voyage” at the top of Flood.
The Piano features a trio of well-worn standards and a quartet of Hancock originals. One of those Hancock compositions, the brief blues tune “Blue Otani,” also feels like an outlier. Full of dazzling runs and subdued abstraction, it imagines what, say, Professor Longhair might have sounded like doing a solo set at the Five Spot. A minute and a half in, Hancock brings out a walking bassline and the fog starts to clear, but in true Hancock fashion, the music delightfully never comes into absolute focus.
All-star bands are notorious for not working. But this one did. Headed up by Hancock, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, with John Patitucci and Brian Blade on bass and drums, this quintet came together to explore the sounds and compositions of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It helped, of course, that Hancock had a direct line to Miles, and at Massey Hall they did one of Hancock’s contributions to the Second Great Quintet songbook, “The Sorcerer.”
“So What/Impressions” mashes up one of Miles’ most famous compositions (“So What”) with Coltrane’s related standard “Impressions.” It’s a stroke of genius that simply places the melody of “Impressions” over the iconic bassline from “So What.” The biggest sparks fly when Brecker takes the lead with gruff, winding lines that dart and wail, and Hancock is right there beneath him, supporting with fiery jumbles of piano.
It’s hard to imagine a better phone call: In 1979 Jaco Pastorius rang up Hancock, explaining that Joni Mitchell was requesting the pianist’s presence in the studio. Hancock wasn’t sure at first, but when Jaco revealed that Wayne Shorter — Hancock’s musical soul mate and Miles Davis bandmate — would be playing sax, there was no turning down the invitation. Those sessions became the Mitchell album Mingus, and Hancock would appear on subsequent Joni LPs. Twenty-five years after their first collaboration, Hancock decided to record an album’s worth of Mitchell tunes, and it won the Album of the Year Grammy in 2008.