Born in 1940 to a musical household, Hancock began playing piano at seven years old and was performing in public by the age of 11. Playing with various outfits during his college years, he crossed paths with Donald Byrd, and the two played together in New York where Byrd was studying at the Manhattan School of Music. Hancock quickly gained a reputation as a gifted pianist and arranger and played sessions with players such as Phil Woods.
On the strength of his performances and reputation, he signed to the legendary Blue Note label, on which his debut album, Takin' Off, was released in May 1962. It captured the 22-year-old stretching out and playing some beautifully accomplished music, with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Dexter Gordon on tenor sax, Butch Warren on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. The first track heard from Hancock was 'Watermelon Man', a tune that has gone on to be one of his standards, especially after the cover version by Mongo Santamaria became a US Top 10 hit.
Running parallel with his solo career, it was his work throughout the 1960s with Miles Davis for which he is fondly remembered and which gained him an international reputation. Davis sought Hancock out, and the young pianist joined Davis' Second Great Quartet in 1963. Hancock's work with the rhythm section of Ron Carter and Tony Williams allowed Davis and his fellow players to achieve some of their most memorable work. Davis enabled Hancock to find his voice, and the series of albums they made between 1963 and 1968, at which point Davis fired Hancock, remain among Davis' most influential. Hancock learned the spirit of collaboration working with Davis and subsequently imbued his work with it.
Hancock maintained a solo career throughout this period, and his Blue Note albums, especially 1965's Maiden Voyage, were hugely influential. Maiden Voyage's 'Cantaloupe Island' has gone on to be a much-sampled track in hip-hop. Towards the end of his time with Davis, Hancock embraced the jazz-rock direction in which Davis' band was heading. After recording the soundtrack for children's programme Fat Albert Rotunda, Hancock's first sextet post-Davis stretched out into fusion, melding rock and experimentation into their music.
This period culminated in the era-defining Head Hunters, Hancock's 12th album, working with Bennie Maupin on reeds, Paul Jackson on bass, Bill Summers on percussion and Harvey Mason on drums. It is a beautiful, shimmering and strange album, gloriously funky, with Hancock focusing on playing Rhodes piano and ARP synthesizer. With its four tracks, including a reworking of 'Watermelon Man', it was arguably Hancock's first masterpiece. A hugely influential album for jazz-funk, it remains a compelling listen.
By the end of the 1970s, Hancock had branched into disco crossover with his huge hits 'I Thought It Was You' and 'You Bet Your Love'. However, he never lost sight of his first love, piano, and released an in-concert album with Chick Corea in 1978 (An Evening With Chick Corea & Herbie Hancock). In the early 1980s, he teamed up with Material's Bill Laswell and created the hard, robotic, hip-hop influenced street music of the album Future Shock, containing the huge single, 'Rockit', which leapt to the summit of the Billboard dance charts, and gave him a Top 10 UK hit. Hancock also acted in and composed the score for the movie 'Round Midnight, for which his compositions won an Academy Award. In 1994, Hancock signed with Mercury to create the Dis Is Da Drum album, which found him working with a full band again after spending most of the later 1980s working with electronics.
So, by the time Herbie Hancock was recording for Verve, he had an illustrious career behind him. In 1995, he recorded The New Standard, an accomplished collection of interpretations, which was rapturously received. Hancock's pioneering spirit found him with Michael Brecker on saxophone, John Scofield on guitar, Dave Holland on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Don Alias on percussion playing songs from beyond a traditional jazzer's comfort zone. Prince's 'Thieves In the Temple', Peter Gabriel's 'Mercy Street' and Steely Dan's 'Your Gold Teeth II' were all covered imaginatively, alongside songs by Sade, the Beatles, Don Henley and Stevie Wonder. Best of all was grunge anthem 'All Apologies', originally by Nirvana, turned into a funky, propulsive, piano and electric sitar-led vamp. Amid all this was a touching solo piano number written by Hancock: 'Manhattan (Island Of Lights And Love)'.
After a well-received collaboration with Wayne Shorter, 1+1, Hancock returned to more traditional territory with Gershwin's World in 1998 a tribute to the songs of George and Ira Gershwin featuring a stellar line-up of supporting players such as Joni Mitchell, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Wayne Shorter and Stevie Wonder.
Released in 2002, Directions In Music: Live At Massey Hall was a fine capture of Hancock with Michael Brecker and Roy Hargrove, celebrating the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. The album was a critical success, and won the 2003 Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group. The trio played intermittently throughout the 2000s.
Hancock returned to Verve for the innovative River: The Joni Letters. Hancock had worked with Mitchell intermittently since he guested on her 1979 album, Mingus. River: The Joni Letters took 10 of Mitchell's works and reinterpreted them, with Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Dave Holland on bass, Lionel Loueke on guitar and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums. Produced with Mitchell's long-term collaborator (and ex-husband) Larry Klein, it was a sympathetic and innovative take on her work, with guest artists such as Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae and Leonard Cohen all paying tribute. Mitchell herself sings 'The Tea Leaf Prophecy' on the album.
Hancock, rightfully, scooped not just the Best Contemporary Jazz award but also the Album of the Year at the 50th Grammy Awards in 2008 for these tender and reflective interpretations. River: The Joni Letters beat a strong field, including career-defining works by Kanye West and Amy Winehouse. It became only the second jazz record to win Album of the Year, the previous one being the legendary Getz/Gilberto collaboration at the 1965 awards.
To celebrate the success of River, Then And Now: The Definitive Herbie Hancock was released by Verve in September 2008. Although virtually impossible to precis Hancock's work on a single disc, it didn't do too badly: 12 tracks from 'Canteloupe Island' onwards, with the Head Hunters version of 'Watermelon Man' and a live version of 'Rockit'.
Herbie Hancock has been releasing definitive works for five decades now, with at least one release per decade redefining musical genres in which he performs. From Maiden Voyage in the 1960s through to River in the 2000s, Hancock is not only one of the greatest performers in the world, but one of the best collaborators - he is completely in tune with his fellow players and is happy for them to contribute, frequently inspiring some of the greatest work he has ever made.
Gershwin's World is a tour de force for Herbie Hancock, transcending genre and label, and ranking among the finest recordings of his lengthy career. Released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of George Gershwin's birth, this disc features jazzman Hancock with a classy collection of special guests. The most surprising of Hancock's guest stars is Joni Mitchell, who delivers a gorgeously sensual vocal on "The Man I Love," then provides an airy, worldly take on "Summertime." On these two tracks, she shows she has come a long way from her folksinger beginnings to become a first-class jazz singer in her own right. Stevie Wonder's unmistakable harmonica complements Mitchell's singing on "Summertime" and shares lead instrument space with his own voice on the W.C. Handy classic "St. Louis Blues." Jazzman extraordinaire Wayne Shorter smokes a solo spot on Duke Ellington's "Cotton Tail" and carves out some space for his soprano saxophone in the midst of "Summertime."
A number of the young lions of jazz are featured on various cuts, and Herbie's old pal Chick Corea joins the leader for a piano duet of James P. Johnson's "Blueberry Rhyme." Gershwin's wonderful, extended "Lullaby" finds Hancock teamed with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, as does an attractive arrangement of a "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra" by Maurice Ravel, whose jazz influence can be heard on the piece. In addition, one of the most beautiful tracks on the album places star soprano Kathleen Battle's voice at the forefront of Gershwin's own "Prelude in C# Minor." Yet with all the fine performances by his guests, Gershwin's World remains Hancock's show, and he plays magnificently throughout. From beautiful to funky, percussive to melodic, improvisational to tightly arranged, Hancock and cohorts take a wondrous journey through the music and world of Gershwin.
Words - Jim Newsom
When Herbie Hancock released Possibilities (2005), a collaborative effort that paired the great pianist and composer with a group of pop and rock stocks from the world over, it was obvious the restless master was entering a new phase of his long career. In that context, River: The Joni Letters makes perfect sense. Hancock and his fine band -- Lionel Loueke (guitar), Wayne Shorter (soprano and tenor saxophones), Dave Holland (bass), Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) -- prepare a series of instrumentals and vocal interpretations of the songs of Joni Mitchell. The vocalists here include those who were inspired by Mitchell, namely Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Mitchell herself on one number (her own recording, Shine, was released on the same day), and some of her peers in the pop world, including Tina Turner and Leonard Cohen. Cohen's connection to the songwriter is direct in that they are both Canadians and both came up playing clubs and venues in the then new "folk" scene.
But Hancock understands something implicit about Mitchell: she was never -- ever -- a folksinger. Her compositions have always walked wildly adventurous rhythmic and harmonic terrain. Indeed, she has played with jazz musicians solidly since the 1970s, beginning with the L.A. record, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and toured with jazz groups, including the all-star band assembled for Shadows and Light that included Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Lyle Mays, Don Alias, and Michael Brecker (Shorter played on a number of those dates as well). Indeed, when Mitchell asked no less than Robbie Robertson and the Band to back her on a tour, they had to excuse themselves because they simply couldn't find a way to play behind her. The material here doesn't walk the line between pop and jazz -- something Hancock is very comfortable doing. This is a jazz record with vocals.
The album's ten tracks are, for the most part, programmed for a vocal tune, followed by an instrumental. This holds true with only one exception in that the disc's first two songs are vocals. First there's the lovely, spooky, smoky "Court and Spark," sung by Jones, followed immediately by the ethereal yet from-the-gut version of "Edith and the Kingpin," sung by Turner (it should be noted here that she is in fine voice, since she hadn't been heard from in quite a while). In this latter cut, it's a testament to the singer, the writer, and Hancock, how deeply soulful this performance is. Turner is one of the great soul singers, but this ballad lends itself to another kind of reading and is therefore radically reinterpreted here with Turner's trademark phrasing, and the restraint doesn't give up an ounce of the emotion in it. The instrumentals begin with "Both Sides Now," which is harmonically rearranged by Hancock and indeed feels like it is being played from the inside out. Shorter's meaty yet understated tenor solo is reminiscent of the great tenderness of Ben Webster. It's utterly gorgeous. The shimmering "Sweet Bird" is hiked up a notch and really begins to cook about a third of the way through without losing any of the song's naturally dreamy quality. Again, Shorter handles the lyric lines on his tenor with real grace. Hancock's wonderfully large chromatic interplay in both his chords and right-handed lines from the middle register are achingly beautiful.
The final two instrumentals on the set are surprises, but they are placed here, perhaps, because they were inspirational to Mitchell. The first is a fine reading of the Edgar de Lange/Duke Ellington/Irving Mills tune "Solitude," a sweet, tender ballad that nonetheless contains some unusual moments in its drifting structure and in its changes. The latter is Shorter's classic "Neferititi," written while both he and Hancock were with Miles Davis in the second quintet. It didn't sound like this then, but that's the beauty of Shorter's best work: it can be revisioned a hundred times over in so many different ways yet is unmistakably his. The other vocal performances here are basically stellar. Rae's version of the title cut offers a completely different dimension of her voice. The soul feel is still there -- and she pushes it into the grooves of the tune. But her clipping of her lines at the end, making them so clean -- especially in the way they interact with Shorter's soprano -- is rather stunning. The hinge of the set is Mitchell's performance of a song she wrote with Larry Klein (who co-produced the album with Hancock and has been Mitchell's producer for ages). Her voice has lowered a bit after a lifetime of cigarette smoking and age, but she's lost none of her power. Her unique phrasing and ever-shifting rhythmic invention brings the listener back to why exactly this recording makes so much sense! She is a jazz singer and always has been. This band lends even more weight to that argument.
The nearly seductive interplay between Hancock's and Loueke's six-string fills and her voice is almost erotic. Luciana Souza's "Amelia" is, while hauntingly gorgeous, the most outside performance on the record. Her voice is closest in some ways to Mitchell's own in timbre, but her way of holding syllables until they melt into the ones that follow adds space and texture to the band's accompaniment. She is one of them, not in front of them. Finally, of course, there is Cohen, the only male vocalist on this collection. He doesn't even try to sing. Instead, accompanied only by Hancock, he recites "The Jungle Line" as poetry. Perhaps because Cohen is a poet as well as a songwriter, he is able to offer a completely new interpretation out of the tune. He allows the words to represent themselves, plaintively reading them as Hancock improvises the melody line, in a modal frame and in a startling array of minor key permutations. River approaches brilliance; it's another accomplishment in a career full of them for Hancock.
The album doesn't simply recontextualize Mitchell. Any fan of hers has known that she never comfortably fit the whole singer/songwriter thing anyway. It actually does that more for jazz and pop. He takes a sound that has been floating around since Jones issued her debut album, and roots it deeply in the jazz camp without giving up the immediacy of sophisticated adult pop -- which is, in a way, an element of the tradition of jazz itself. For jazz fans, this is a wonderful new chapter, a new way to hear him (and Shorter). For pop and Mitchell fans, this is a way to step quietly into another world and experience wonders. This CD was nominated for a Grammy award in 2007 for Best Album, Best Contemporary Jazz Album, and Hancock's improvisation on "Both Sides Now" was also nominated for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo.
Words - Thom Jurek
On first glance this record would not seem to have much promise from a jazz standpoint. Herbie Hancock performs a set of tunes which include numbers from the likes of Peter Gabriel, Stevie Wonder, Sade, Paul Simon, Prince, the Beatles ("Norwegian Wood") and Kurt Cobain. However by adding vamps, reharmonizing the chord structures, sometimes quickly discarding the melodies and utilizing an all-star band, Hancock was able to transform the potentially unrewarding music into creative jazz. Hancock, who sticks to acoustic piano, shows that he is still in prime form, taking quite a few fiery solos. With Michael Brecker on tenor and surprisingly effective soprano, guitarist John Scofield, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and percussionist Don Alias (along with an occasional horn or string section that was dubbed in later), the results are often quite hard-swinging and certainly never predictable. Although it is doubtful that any of these songs will ever become a jazz standard, Herbie Hancock has successfully created a memorable set of "new" music. Well worth investigating.
Words - Scott Yanow
A double-milestone year for jazz, 2001 marked the 75th anniversary of the births of both Miles Davis and John Coltrane. With that in mind, Herbie Hancock went on tour with a quintet modeled after his V.S.O.P. bands of the '70s and '80s and the Tribute to Miles band of the '90s, which in turn were modeled after the 1965-1968 Miles Davis Quintet. The question this disc proposes: Can you go home yet again? Hancock preferred to dodge that one, saying that he was attempting to push the music onward in the Davis/Coltrane spirit of adventure rather than play for nostalgia. But essentially, despite the often unblinkingly hard-nosed soloing and the sometimes radical reworking of the old tunes, the conception of this idiom is that of Miles, and Michael Brecker's often brilliant, searching tenor sax work owes its soul to the example of Trane.
Although the quintet's Los Angeles gig on October 11, 2001, was rather disappointing, the Toronto concert recorded here was a big improvement, with two weeks of roadwork evidently having the desired tightening effect. Though Hancock's piano gradually became more abstract and disconnected with its surroundings over the years, here he is in touch with his colleagues. Brecker provides the most fervent individual statement with an unaccompanied rendition of "Naima" that amounts to a virtual encyclopedia of tenor saxophone technique. Roy Hargrove does a serviceable job on trumpet and flugelhorn, trying to fill some heavy shoes, and as accomplished as the rhythm team of John Patitucci (bass) and Brian Blade (drums) is, you miss the irreplaceable combustion of Ron Carter and especially the late Tony Williams (compare the original Davis recording of "The Sorcerer" with this inward, less dynamic, less driving version). The most strikingly reworked cover tune is a slow, drawn-out, mournful take on "Impressions," almost an elegy for Coltrane, and Brecker delivers the eulogy with fire in the belly. There is new material from Hargrove ("The Poet"), Brecker ("D Trane"), and the three headliners ("Misstery"), none of which expands much beyond the parameters of the Davis and Coltrane models. While this quintet does not kick over old boundaries, it does make good, uncompromisingly intelligent music.
Richard S. Ginell
In the 1970s, Herbie Hancock created a successful blend of jazz improvisation and contemporary funk rhythms in a succession of albums beginning with the classic Head Hunters. On Dis Is Da Drum, Hancock once again takes a dive into contemporary rhythms, in this case mid-'90s hip-hop. While the blend was not as commercially successful this time around as his crossover forays of twenty years earlier had been, the resulting music still proves to be well worth checking out. Employing cohorts like Bennie Maupin, Wah Wah Watson and multi-percussionist Bill Summers from the old days, and combining them with a huge roster of contemporary jazz, rap and hip-hop musicians, Hancock creates a surprising album full of samples, sequences, drum loops, and rhythm armies. Layered across the top are a variety of solos from Hancock himself, flutist Hubert Laws, trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonist Maupin and vocal snippets from various sources.
The release of this album was delayed because of disagreements between the artist and his record company over the final mixes. It is, nonetheless, a recording that rewards repeated listening, from the updated version of "Butterfly," which made its first appearance on 1974's Thrust, to such irresistible gems as "Mojuba," "Bo Ba Be Da" and the title track. Not for jazzers whose ears and minds are closed to new sounds and ideas, but proof that jazz is a continually evolving music capable of absorbing the sounds of each new era and expanding its vocabulary as a result.
Eords - Jim Newsom
Herbie Hancock's debut as a leader, Takin' Off, revealed a composer and pianist able to balance sophistication and accessibility, somewhat in the vein of Blue Note's prototype hard bopper Horace Silver. Yet while Hancock could be just as funky and blues-rooted as Silver, their overall styles diverged in several ways: Hancock was lighter and more cerebral, a bit more adventurous in his harmonies, and more apt to break his solos out of a groove (instead of using them to create one). So even if, in retrospect, Takin' Off is among Hancock's most conventional albums, it shows a young stylist already strikingly mature for his age, and one who can interpret established forms with spirit and imagination.
Case in point: the simple, catchy "Watermelon Man," which became a Hancock signature tune and a jazz standard in the wake of a hit cover by Latin jazz star Mongo Santamaria. Hancock's original version is classic Blue Note hard bop: spare, funky piano riffing and tight, focused solo statements. The other compositions are memorable and well-constructed too (if not quite hit material); all have their moments, but particular highlights include the ruminative ballad "Alone and I," the minor-key "The Maze" (which features a little bit of free improvisation in the rhythm section), and the bluesy "Empty Pockets." The backing group includes then up-and-coming trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, bassist Butch Warren, and drummer Billy Higgins. All in all, Takin' Off is an exceptional first effort, laying the groundwork for Hancock to begin pushing the boundaries of hard bop on his next several records.
Words - Steve Huey
Takin' Off was an impressive debut effort from Herbie Hancock, and his second record, My Point of View, proved that it was no fluke. Hancock took two risks with the album -- his five original compositions covered more diverse stylistic ground than his debut, and he assembled a large septet for the sessions; the band features such stellar musicians as trumpeter Donald Byrd, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, drummer Tony Williams, guitarist Grant Green, bassist Chuck Israels, and trombonist Grachan Moncur III. It's a rare occasion that all seven musicians appear on the same track, which speaks well for the pianist's arranging capabilities.
Hancock knows how to get the best out of his songs and musicians, which is one of the reasons why My Point of View is a captivating listen. The other is the sheer musicality of the record. Hard bop remains the foundation for Hancock's music, but he explores its limitations, finding its soulful side (the successful "Watermelon Man" rewrite "Blind Man, Blind Man"), its probing, adventurous leanings (the edgy "King Cobra"), and its ballad side. "The Pleasure Is Mine" is a lovely, simple ballad, while "A Tribute to Someone" takes the form to more challenging territory -- it's lyrical, but it takes chances. The closer "And What if I Don't" finds the band working a relaxed, bluesy groove that gives them opportunities to spin out rich, tasteful solos. It's a little more relaxed than Takin' Off, but in its own way My Point of View is nearly as stunning.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Between 1965's Maiden Voyage and 1968's Speak Like a Child, Herbie Hancock was consumed with his duties as part of the Miles Davis Quintet, who happened to be at their creative and popular peak during those three years. When Hancock did return to a leadership position on Speak Like a Child, it was clear that he had assimilated not only the group's experiments, but also many ideas Miles initially sketched out with Gil Evans. Like Maiden Voyage, the album is laid-back, melodic, and quite beautiful, but there are noticeable differences between the two records. Hancock's melodies and themes have become simpler and more memorable, particularly on the title track, but that hasn't cut out room for improvisation. Instead, he has found a balance between accessible themes and searching improvisations that work a middle ground between post-bop and rock.
Similarly, the horns and reeds are unconventional. He has selected three parts -- Thad Jones' flugelhorn, Peter Phillips' bass trombone, Jerry Dodgion's alto flute -- with unusual voicings, and he uses them for tonal texture and melodic statements, not solos. The rhythm section of bassist Ron Carter and drummer Mickey Roker keeps things light, subtle, and forever shifting, emphasizing the hybrid nature of Hancock's original compositions. But the key to Speak Like a Child is in Hancock's graceful, lyrical playing and compositions, which are lovely on the surface and provocative and challenging upon closer listening.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Less overtly adventurous than its predecessor, Empyrean Isles, Maiden Voyage nevertheless finds Herbie Hancock at a creative peak. In fact, it's arguably his finest record of the '60s, reaching a perfect balance between accessible, lyrical jazz and chance-taking hard bop. By this point, the pianist had been with Miles Davis for two years, and it's clear that Miles' subdued yet challenging modal experiments had been fully integrated by Hancock. Not only that, but through Davis, Hancock became part of the exceptional rhythm section of bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, who are both featured on Maiden Voyage, along with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and tenor saxophonist George Coleman.
The quintet plays a selection of five Hancock originals, many of which are simply superb showcases for the group's provocative, unpredictable solos, tonal textures, and harmonies. While the quintet takes risks, the music is lovely and accessible, thanks to Hancock's understated, melodic compositions and the tasteful group interplay. All of the elements blend together to make Maiden Voyage a shimmering, beautiful album that captures Hancock at his finest as a leader, soloist, and composer.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
My Point of View and Inventions and Dimensions found Herbie Hancock exploring the fringes of hard bop, working with a big band and a Latin-flavored percussion section, respectively. On Empyrean Isles, he returns to hard bop, but the results are anything but conventional. Working with cornetist Freddie Hubbard, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams -- a trio just as young and adventurous as he was -- Hancock pushes at the borders of hard bop, finding a brilliantly evocative balance between traditional bop, soul-injected grooves, and experimental, post-modal jazz. Hancock's four original concepts are loosely based on the myths of the Empyrean Isles, and they are designed to push the limits of the band and of hard bop. Even "Cantaloupe Island," well-known for its funky piano riff, takes chances and doesn't just ride the groove.
"The Egg," with its minimal melody and extended solo improvisations, is the riskiest number on the record, but it works because each musician spins inventive, challenging solos that defy convention. In comparison, "One Finger Snap" and "Oliloqui Valley" adhere to hard bop conventions, but each song finds the quartet vigorously searching for new sonic territory with convincing fire. That passion informs all of Empyrean Isles, a record that officially established Hancock as a major artist in his own right.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine