Herbie Hancock is so relaxed and unshowy a performer, so at ease with his craft, that it would be easy to underestimate his impact on late-20th-century music. Yet every jazz pianist of stature working today bears his mark, and his grasp of amplification and digital possibilities laid the foundations for studio techniques that are still in use today.
When Hancock signed for Columbia in 1972 his approach to music and his acoustic piano style were already largely in place. It was during his Columbia years that he mastered amplified keyboards and the coming technology and his entire 31-album output for the label, including eight recorded for Sony Japan, has just been released on CD.
Chicago-born Hancock was a musical prodigy who performed Mozart with the Chicago Symphony when he was 11 and yet loved rhythm and blues. Both his classical touch and feeling for rhythm have remained constant. He discovered jazz in his early teens and by the time he went on the road at 20 with trumpeter Donald Byrd, he had absorbed the impressionism and soul of the best contemporary jazz.
Two years later, in 1962, he signed for Blue Note – his first album, Takin’ Off, produced the hit “Watermelon Man” – and a year after that he joined trumpeter Miles Davis’s legendary Second Great Quintet. Davis and his band pulled together myriad experimental jazz strands and pushed form to the limit. But even their most abstract explorations were rooted in blues and rhythm.
Hancock left Davis in 1968, just as the trumpeter was experimenting with the amplified sounds of rock and rhythm and blues. Hancock’s first band was an acoustic sextet, with which he made a recording for Warner Brothers of music composed for the TV show Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. In 1970 he formed what is now referred to as the Mwandishi band to investigate jazz-rock rhythms and develop his own approach to the new sounds of the Fender Rhodes, Moog synthesiser and clavinet. Spacey, spiritual and somewhat baffling, the Mwandishi sound was some distance removed from the razor-sharp rhythms of the militant funk that increasingly dominated rhythm and blues.
In 1972 Hancock switched to Columbia and recorded the final Mwandishi album Sextant. It opens with rhythmic beeps and a blast of free jazz and the three long tracks have jazz-rock grooves. But the album’s long slow-burn and the insistent sound of Hancock’s clavinet signal the changes to come, and in 1973 Hancock formed The Headhunters. This is where the Columbia story really begins.
Hancock wanted the energy of funk and the depth and freedom of jazz, and his new band delivered all that. The tracks were long; they changed tempo and featured a full measure of improvisation, but were now fuelled by a rhythm section steeped in hard-nosed street-smart funk. The album Head Hunters went gold and the lead track, “Chameleon”, became a commercial hit and is a jam-session staple to this day.
Hancock recorded three albums with this band and then, in 1976, teamed up with Motown studio guitarist Wah Wah Watson. Their first album Secrets stripped down the jazz, beefed up the beats and featured an early vocal. But most importantly it signalled an advance in Hancock’s grasp of synthesised sound and studio technology.
With the help of technical collaborator Bryan Bell, Hancock designed a means of storing, collating and triggering a vast array of sounds, predating the introduction of Midi technology by some distance. His next seven albums were characterised by hypnotic layers of overlapping rhythm and club-friendly beats, swirling textures and the beefy sound of Bennie Maupin’s sax.
The last album in this series was a collaboration with Rod Temperton, who worked with Quincy Jones on albums including Thriller. Lite Me Up was released in 1982 but by then urban music was gripped by the turntables of hip-hop. Hancock’s reaction was swift and crunchy. He teamed up with Bronx producer Bill Laswell and in 1983 released Future Shock, which contained the hit single “Rockit”. Hancock recorded two more albums with Laswell, including his last for Columbia. Perfect Machine, released in 1988, was a bleak electronic take on the music that was then hip in clubs.
Hancock never turned his back on his acoustic roots. Over the years he recorded trios, a quartet with a young Wynton Marsalis and a dazzling duet with fellow pianist Chick Corea. In 1976, Hancock had formed VSOP with fellow members of the Miles Davis band, featuring Freddie Hubbard on trumpet.
They only recorded four albums, but their success helped sow the seeds for the jazz renaissance of the 1980s. There were also intriguing one-off projects and standalone scores for the films Death Wish in 1974 and Round Midnight in 1986.
The release of this substantial 34-CD set underlines both Hancock’s huge contribution to music technology and his profound musicianship.
‘The Complete Columbia Album Collection 1972-1988’ is out now on Sony Legacy