HERBIE HANCOCK The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 16 November 2008

I’ve never been hit by a train, but this was a lot like being hit by a train.

At least I was prepared, to a degree. My iPod has been groaning under the weight of Herbie Hancock albums for the last three months, so I had some inkling of the great man’s reach and range. Anybody who’d shown up tonight solely on the strength of his recent Grammy-winning collection of smooth, supper-friendly Joni Mitchell covers would have received a somewhat ruder awakening. I’ve read reports of people leaving halfway through other shows on this tour, and under the circumstances I can understand why.

Firstly, about Herbie himself. 68 years old, he turned in a 150 minute set (albeit one that only included seven longggg pieces of music). Affable to a fault, he granted the band members lavish but entirely deserved introductions before anybody had played a note, and tried to engage the pit photographer in a conversation about cameras.

Then there’s the extraordinary music he and his ensemble created. You know where you are with jazz, normally. There’s a theme, everybody takes a solo, the theme repeats and then there’s applause. Most of this set, however, dropped the listener right in the midst of proceedings, with absolutely nothing to grab hold of. I mean, I can take my “Trout Mask Replica”, I’m learning to enjoy “Out To Lunch”, and I even survived first hearing all four Tyrannosaurus Rex albums in the same evening when I was 12. This stuff, though, just floored me, leaving me grappling for reference points. 

“Speak Like A Child / V (The Visitor)” was a bit like Can covering Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly” – well, for a brief moment, at least. “Seven Teen”, a piece in 17/4 contributed by Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke, must have stretched way over half an hour, its duration more than justified by some genuinely jawdropping exchanges towards the close. During a solo performance Loueke sampled and played over his own guitar work, did some Bobby McFerrin-style human beatboxing, sang in tongues as if possessed and coordinated the audience’s handclapping efforts. It was the close of the main set before I heard something instantly recognisable, although without Herbie’s helpful announcements I would’ve believed anybody who’d told me they’d spent the entire evening performing different arrangements of the same tune. Somewhat embarrassingly, what I heard as “Watermelon Man” was interpreted in some corners of the interweb as “Cantaloupe Island”, but, irrespective of what it actually was, we were at last back in that safe harbour of theme/solo/solo/solo/solo/theme/applause. For an encore of “Chameleon” Herbie returned wielding a Roland keytar (presuming they’re still called that in these post-80s days) enabling him to jam in close proximity with each musician in turn…and did he evah!

I’ve got to say a word about the phenomenal band, which included James Genus on five-string and acoustic basses, workaholic percussionist Kendrick Scott, harmonica player Gregoire Maret and Terence Blanchard on trumpet. Blanchard’s name was familiar to me from his many Spike Lee film scores, but he’s also an exceptional jazz musician. His style’s very Miles – those volcanic bursts of indignation are a bit of a giveaway – but, then again, maybe every post-Davis trumpeter is inevitably held in his thrall.

At the concert’s close I felt a bit like the stunned, confused hippies heard in the audience on Miles Davis’ “Live At The Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It’s About That Time”, unable to adequately process what I’d just experienced. I’ve never been to a concert that did that to me before.

HERBIE HANCOCK Head Hunters (Columbia) 

Barely categorisable even now, it’s impossible for me to imagine the impact “Head Hunters” would have had on release 35 years ago. Perhaps it has antecedents in the looping funk of Miles Davis’ “On The Corner”, then still dewy-fresh and mired in controversy amongst jazz fans, but the four pieces here are far more developed, arranged and pursued than Miles’ endless, circular grooves.

 The guitarless band – officially dubbed The Headhunters, under which name they recorded both with and without Hancock – weave a complex, poly-timbred tapestry that foregrounds Herbie’s cutting edge synth technology and Bill Summers’ encyclopaedic array of exotic percussion instruments. At a push, their sound might be compared with Weather Report, if Weather Report were ever this funky.

The 16-minute “Chameleon”, with its thin, eerie synth strings, is almost symphonic at times,  breaking ground unexplored by Davis’ regimented, restricted funk. Expansive and flowing as it is, however, presumably all the fevered multitracking inevitably renders it a more sculpted, prepared experience than most recorded jazz. “Watermelon Man” is a comprehensive reworking of the opening track from Hancock’s 1962 debut “Takin’ Off”, and I would’ve been hard-pressed to identify the source, so thoroughly have the bare bones of the original been rearranged. “Sly”, a tribute to the Family Stone leader, hits peak after frenetic peak with jaw-dropping dexterity, but to what avail? Finally, “Vein Melter”, with its drowsy martial beat, spends its nine unhurried minutes elegantly going nowhere.

Undoubtedly “Head Hunters” is an admirable album (and claimed, at the time of its 1992 CD reissue, to be the best-selling jazz album of all time), with an incalculable influence on electric jazz (and hip-hop, a genre that frequently plunders it for samples).  However, without wishing to suggest that it majors on technique at the expense of emotion, I can’t say that I enjoy it anywhere near as much as I anticipated I would. It’s impressive, it’s elaborate, but it seems too diffuse a work to linger long in the (well, in my) memory. Maybe it just needs a little more, y’know, soul.

Unlike previous releases in Sony BMG’s recent European vinyl reissue campaign, “Head Hunters” actually sounds pretty inviting. It’s no audiophile delight, but for an 8 record the sonics are commendable. Still, it’s a shame I had to drill out the centre hole before it would fit on my gramophone.

HERBIE HANCOCK Takin’ Off (Cisco Music)

 

I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more confident and assured opening to a recording career than that with which Herbie Hancock begins this, his 1962 solo debut. “Watermelon Man” is both a genuine pop hit and a jazz standard, one that Herbie himself radically reworked during his fusion years on the “Head Hunters” album. The composer blends seamlessly into the rhythm section, leaving the initial solos to Freddie Hubbard (whose trumpet wails like a siren) and Dexter Gordon on tenor. It’s a shame that he didn’t managed to engineer a proper conclusion to the piece, though; I still can’t shake the suspicion that a fadeout on an acoustic jazz recording is cheating.

               

I also can’t ignore the feeling that, as with “Maiden Voyage” (a phrase that, prophetically, features in “Takin’ Off”’s sleevenotes) the famous opening track overshadows everything that follows. The remaining five tunes are all good, innovative yet commercial performances, but possibly more a catalogue of techniques and styles than a deeply-felt demonstration of heart and soul. It’s almost like listening to a succession of calling cards: some blues here (“Driftin’”), a ballad there (“Alone And I”), all bases competently covered but no emotions really stirred.

               

On the credit side, though, Cisco Music’s heavy vinyl reissue is lovely, certainly a finer sonic specimen than the far more expensive Japanese 180 gram Blue Note reissues I’ve been encountering recently, if not up to Analogue Productions’ breathtaking standards. It’s certainly good enough to make Cisco’s recent withdrawal from the vinyl marketplace all the more regrettable.

 

HERBIE HANCOCK Maiden Voyage (Blue Note)

 

Hancock’s fifth album, released in 1965, is a vaguely conceptual work, at least in as much as track titles such as “The Eye Of The Hurricane” and “Dolphin Dance” and liner essays by the pianist himself and one Nora Kelly suggest a nautical theme.

               

The serene, gliding title track is the highlight here, maybe not just of this album but Hancock’s entire career. Perhaps it’s a function of his unfussy instrumental style, but it seems as though he’s happy to remain a part of the rhythmic backline, ceding the solo spotlight to Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and tenor saxophonist George Coleman.

               

Soon, though, the album moves into more experimental territory, seemingly to its detriment in my opinion. “The Eye Of The Hurricane” soon shrugs off melodic function, sounding more akin to Miles Davis’ work circa “Miles Smiles”, perhaps not surprisingly given that both records share a Hancock / Ron Carter / Tony Williams rhythm section. As that’s an album I’ve never really got to grips with, it perhaps explains why I feel all at sea here. On “Survival Of The Fittest” all that freedom erupts into patches of barely-controlled chaos. It might well be an accurate musical representation of a churning, darting under-seascape, but there are moments when, to the less intrepid listener, the centre does not hold.

               

For all my failure to understand “Maiden Voyage”, this Japanese 180 gram vinyl reissue is a lovely artefact to behold: the sleeve is thick, glossy cardboard, and the somewhat overbearing, raspy sonics that marred this series’ edition of “Somethin’ Else” seem to have been largely tamed. Once again, though, it’s a shame about that snug-fitting obi.

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