I’ve been listening to Herbie Hancock for nearly ten years now. I started out with his seminal funk/fusion masterpiece Headhunters. I’d just gotten out of an 8 hour Hazmat training session in South Bend and my mind was fried. I stopped at a Borders book store before heading home to grab a coffee and just decompress from learning way too much about flammable chemicals and proper DOT rules and regulations on transporting corrosives. I can’t remember what brought me to the jazz section of the CDs, or why I was even looking for Herbie Hancock, but I found Headhunters and was on my way. The ride home was a spaced-out and funky one. I was instantly smitten with the heavy grooves and Hancock’s use of synthesizers.
From there I ordered Thrust, the follow-up to Headhunters and found I loved that album almost as much. So much funk, so little time. I made a U-turn back into Hancock’s earlier years and bought Maiden Voyage, Takin’ Off, and Empyrean Isles. I found I loved that era as well. Definitely not as funky, but some serious hard bop, with elements of classical music as well. Hancock was a classically-trained pianist from Chicago first and foremost, and that showed in his intricately arranged music. A song like “The Egg” off of Empyrean Isles was this mix of classical, avante garde, and hard bop that even Sun Ra had to go “Hmm” to. This song showed some really experimental leanings with Hancock. It showed he wasn’t just about the bop.
Well, there’s a segment in Herbie Hancock’s career that seems to have been this forgotten trove of experimentalism and spaced-out funk. For a short time, Hancock was signed to Warner Bros music, and this should have been a break-through period for his career. What came about was only three albums. Three albums that both proceeded and preceded huge moments and highly praised and regarded periods in Herbie Hancock’s musical history. His Warner Bros years seem but a mere blip in his career. It’s a shame, really. The three albums he made for Warner are three of the best records he ever made.
Fat Albert Rotunda was the first album Herbie did for Warner Bros, and it was a shift from the straight up jazz to something more fun and funky. He made the album as a soundtrack for a TV special called Hey, Hey, Hey It’s Fat Albert for Bill Cosby which later inspired Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Hancock makes good use of the electric piano on this album, and rhythms are pretty much straight up funk. Lots of brass splashed throughout, but done so more Sly and the Family Stone and not hard bop heroes. There’s also plenty of funky electric guitar throughout. It’s a seriously fun collection of tracks and a real standalone record.
Up next was Mwandishi, and all bets were off on this record. Herbie Hancock’s work with Miles Davis -especially on In A Silent Way– played a huge role in shaping this album. “Ostinato” opens with echoing electric piano before percussion and bass roll in and get a groove going. By this time Hancock was starting to get into analog synthesizers and it shows in the freaky noises emanating from the speakers. This is the beginning of some seriously dense and heady music for Herbie Hancock. Eddie Henderson fills the shoes of Miles quite nicely, playing some incredible trumpet blasts. “You’ll Know When You Get There” is quiet, sleek, and mysterious with elements Hancock and visited earlier on Davis’ Nefertiti. With the echo effect on Henderson’s trumpet you most definitely get the feel of a Miles Davis joint here. The epic “Wandering Spirit Song” is over 21 minutes of both avante haze and post bop experimentalism. You could feel Herbie Hancock was trying to push himself and the genre.
The last album Herbie Hancock did for Warner Bros was Crossings, and it solidified the ideas and journeys that Hancock began to explore on Mwandishi. “Sleeping Giant” opens with lots of percussion. The sound of said sleeping giant waking up perhaps? Soon enough though you can hear the rumbling of the band coming in and so begins this hallucinatory trek through what sounds like jazz fusion and Bitches Brew-like drug-addled hard funk. To me, this song personifies everything I love about fusion and that melding of purist jazz and that moment where electronic instrumentation made its way into the jazz fold. It’s swaying, groovy, and rhythmic. It’s equal parts street-level hard and “outer space” out there. “Sleeping Giant” takes up one whole side of the LP at over 24 minutes. It feels like Hancock created a true piece with movements. The song ebbs and flows, moments of whispering silence with the occasional swish of electronics interspersed with freak out trumpet blares and full-on street strut funk. It’s a masterful piece work. “Quasar” is intimate by comparison; simple even. At just over 7 minutes it opens with acoustic piano only to be taken over by the star federation. Creepy electronics bleep and blip around the song before Buster Williams’ bass comes in and gives us a temporary reprieve from the weirdness. Patrick Gleeson’s moog synthesizer takes center stage on this out there track. This is what Eric Dolphy would’ve sounded like had he ever gotten his hands on a moog. Interstellar grooves, baby. “Water Torture” continues the freak out with the stereo panning giving the feeling of floating in space; constellations surrounding you in a sea of heroin bliss. Definitely a hat is off to side three of Bitches Brew here. Williams’ bass and Hancock’s electric piano are the constant here, with blasts of horn, moog, and synth envelope you. In my opinion, this is some of the best fusion, rock, and free jazz created at the time. Hancock opened his heart and mind and followed the muse, regardless of how far out she took him.
Unfortunately, the rest of the world didn’t have the enthusiasm for Hancock’s far out excursions as I do. All three records he released for Warner did rather poorly sales-wise, and jazz purists poo poo’d at his electronic experimentation. It worried Hancock so much that he wondered if he’d be able to continue as a viable musician. Or at the very least, be able to support himself financially. So he changed musical direction and record labels. He left Warner and joined Columbia Records. He released the excellent Sextant, which to my ears was a continuation on Crossings sound and space excursions, albeit with a little more funk(and a lot more reverb.) Then he formed the Headhunters band, released the album Headhunters, and the rest is extremely funky history.
In August of this year Rhino released Herbie Hancock: The Warner Years(1969-1972). There was a similar collection put out back in 1994, but this new collection adds lots of extras from the time. I would highly recommend seeking this three-disc set out if anything I’ve written here made you prick up your ears. I’m collecting them on vinyl of course. I love hearing the crackle and sizzle from the turn table. And this music just sounds amazing on vinyl anyways.
Give Hancock’s Warner years a shot. If Bitches Brew is something you love, then you are missing out here.