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A View to Herbie Hancock's Future
1963's My Point of View finds Hancock on the precipice of greatness
Greetings music lovers and welcome to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
I hope you are all enjoying the remaining days of summer.
The great pianist Herbie Hancock spent the first part of the season on tour in the States and then Europe. Here’s a short video clip of him at the end of his late July show in Spain feeding off of the enthusiasm of the crowd. Hancock, now 82 years old, is indefatigable and one of the greatest ambassadors of jazz that the music has ever had. Watching the clip brought to mind one of my favourite Hancock recordings: My Point of View, which was recorded in March 1963 and was his second album as a leader. The recording is a bit of a footnote in the Hancock story but for a variety of reasons, all of which I try to elaborate on in the below essay, it is an important snapshot of his rapid evolution as an artist. I hope you enjoy it.
Up next at the end of the month and in anticipation of the transition from summer to autumn (spoiler alert: my favourite season by far), I will be writing about two albums by singer and song-stylist extraordinaire Nancy Wilson that call to mind the coming fall.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
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As far as clichés go, “age is but a number” is relatively harmless, especially when lined up against at least 20 or so crimes against language that immediately come to mind and fill me with existential dread for the future of the planet.
In fact, it may very well be said that these days we are living in a golden age of the golden aged. Consider Norman Lear, who just marked his centenary or Dick Van Dyke or William Shatner, hale and hearty nonagenarians. In the music realm, Paul McCartney, just turned 80, continues to play shows that clock in close to three hours; David Crosby, just turned 81, has enjoyed an artistic renaissance in the past six or seven years; Bob Dylan, 81 too, maintains a tour schedule that someone half his age may balk at and Herbie Hancock, 82, has been on the road through the States and across the pond in Europe since late spring. Just the tip of the iceberg, really. Maybe there is something after all to this whole business of the fountain of youth. If so, rustle up a jug of this brew for me.
Hancock is the rare artist that is imbued with a certain agelessness. He has never stayed put, has consistently evolved and found new ways to express himself artistically. Pianist Chick Corea was similarly indefatigable and when he passed at age 79 in February of last year, it came as a shock to discover that he was just like you and me: mortal.
Before his rendez-vous with Joni Mitchell, MTV and ‘Rockit,’ Head Hunters, the Mwandishi band, Maiden Voyage and Miles Davis, Hancock was one of two jazz pianists—the other being McCoy Tyner—who emerged at the beginning of the sixties and were instrumental in helping to define the direction that the music took over the remainder of the decade and beyond.
Tyner’s importance was almost instantaneous after he stepped into the piano chair of John Coltrane’s quartet with his mystical chordal vamps, a dancing touch on single-line runs countered with an intense and ominous touch with chords, and solos that eschewed sentences and paragraphs for engrossing short stories.
Hancock's emergance came a little more slowly.
A native of Chicago, Hancock was classically trained—his first public performance was at age 11 with the Chicago Symphony performing the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major, K. 537.
In jazz, he was largely self-taught. Hancock's first major job was in trumpeter Donald Byrd’s band and with whom he made his first appearances on LP on Blue Note Records in 1961. The next year, Hancock was signed to the label and with his first session as a leader, Takin’ Off, scored a major hit with ‘Watermelon Man,’ especially when percussionist Mongo Santamaria covered it.
What dazzles most about Hancock in his formative years of the early sixties is how versatile and wide-ranging his talents were. Wearing his Bill Evans influence on his sleeve—check out his solo on ‘Nai Nai’ from Donald Byrd’s Free Form, especially the cluster of chords he plays on the bridge of his second chorus, he could also bring a driving thrust with his Pentecostal comping on something like ‘Elijah’ from Byrd’s A New Perspective as well as a comfort with the avant-garde movement explempified on Eric Dolphy’s The Illinois Concert.
His composing displayed a similar range as well as a innate gift for the hummable tune; soulful in the case of ‘Driftin’’ or gracefully flowing on tunes like ‘Night Flower’ or ‘Three Bags Full.’ Herbie Hancock was a jazz encyclopedia all his own. His second session as a leader, My Point of View, is a particularly vivid time capsule in that regard as well as of the state of jazz in early 1963.
That year proved to be a key one in the history of Blue Note. Its reputation was built in part on being an important chronicler of the hard-bop movement through Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and the musicians who came out of Blakey’s finishing school such as pianist Horace Silver on down to trumpeters Kenny Dorham and Donald Byrd, and saxophonists Hank Mobley and Jackie McLean. The label's practice of paid rehearsals also brought a more deliberate and polished veneer to its records when compared to the ad-hoc jam sessions on Prestige, for example. Branching out further, Blue Note made key signings like tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon and label boss Alfred Lion became more and more interested in the avant-garde, particularly through the arrival of pianist Andrew Hill in 1963 and McLean’s experiments on albums like Let Freedom Ring. As the year wound to a close, trumpeter Lee Morgan recorded The Sidewinder. The title track, a jukebox- and radio-friendly boogaloo, would be a huge seller and spawn almost a cottage industry of similarly sounding tunes on the label for the remainder of the sixties.
The closest predecessor to ‘The Sidewinder’ was Hancock’s ‘Watermelon Man.’ The opener of My Point of View, ‘Blind Man, Blind Man,’ was an attempt to replicate its success. If the tune Hancock composed didn’t restrike commercial gold, its’ driving melody is eminently pleasing, especially a break in the middle for a tasty lick by guitarist Grant Green. It also serves as a useful introduction to the deliciously unique ensemble Hancock assembled for the album, recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey on March 19, 1963.
The frontline combined Hancock’s current employer Donald Byrd with tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, who both worked together in Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and trombonist Grachan Moncur III who was part of the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet and had just recorded a groundbreaking album with Jackie McLean: One Step Beyond.
The rhythm section comprised of Green and Hancock with bassist Chuck Israels, making his sole appearance on a Blue Note session and who had taken the deeply innovative Scott LaFaro’s place in Bill Evans’ Trio after LaFaro’s tragic death in a car accident in July 1961, and a 17-year-old Bostonian phenom by the name of Tony Williams on drums. Collectively, it was a septet that existed solely for this album and that it was the only time that Mobley, Green and Israels recorded with Williams heightens its historical significance.
For Green and Mobley’s solos on ‘Blind Man, Blind Man,’ Hancock alternates between two vamps: one riffing on the tune’s main melodic motif and the other repeating a short chordal pattern to build up a subtle amount of tension. Green pokes and pecks, unleashing about halfway into his improvisation a typically fast run of restrained and refined blues. Mobley is more lyrical and probing—gently preaching without cliché. Hancock’s statement is made exclusively of a serious of riffs, often repeated, that climaxes with a single-line run that builds into an affirming set of soulful chords. The temperature never gets too hot but is warm enough for the listener to take notice. ‘Blind Man, Blind Man’’s spirit of unpretentiousness is welcome and ultimately makes it a worthy successor to ‘Watermelon Man.’
‘A Tribute to Someone’ easily recalls Bill Evans’ absorbing way with a ballad, especially in the introduction with Israels’ fluttering bass line, Williams’ light cymbal work and Hancock’s direct attack on the piano. The time is not explicitly stated, just sufficiently implied. Featuring only the primary rhythm section plus Byrd and Mobley, ‘A Tribute to Someone’ has a deeply attractive theme with a rhythmic suspension at the end of the second as well as the final A section and a pretty shift in the harmony in the bridge that all contributes to a rewarding framework to improvise upon. Byrd, Mobley and Hancock do not disappoint in this regard—here are three exquisite statements of lyricism. Behind them is Williams’ dancing drum work, creating the space for each soloist to provide the fullest of their expressive power and illustrating why the teenaged drummer would quickly become the talk of the jazz world.
In his liner notes for the album, legendary jazz critic Ira Gitler compares Williams to Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones and indeed, the astute listener will hear Haynes’ precision and Jones’ explosiveness in Williams’ playing here. I also hear the dancer in “Philly” Joe Jones through the ease in which his sticks step around the drums, hands and feet both graceful errand boys for rhythm.
Williams comes even more into the foreground for ‘King Cobra,’ the most future facing composition on My Point of View. With a languid line played in unison by Byrd, Moncur III and Mobley resting on top of the urgent sound of Hancock, Israels and Williams (Green sits out here), it resolves on the tune’s main gambit: a triplet motif in which Hancock and Williams are in lockstep. While it’s undeniably exciting to hear the frontline and Hancock navigate the harmonic and rhythmic twists and turns of ‘King Cobra’ (check out especially how Hancock ends his solo: suddenly ceasing a single-line run to get stuck on an ambiguous chord, he descends questioningly down the keyboard and then slashes into the triplet motif to bring the return of the theme), the spotlight is fixed on Williams. The ease with which he pushes everyone along, the fills, the stops and starts, and the derring-do in which he slips in intricate rhythmic patterns are astonishing, particularly in the tour-de-force coda.
If the short ballad that follows, ‘The Pleasure is Mine,’ stands out at all, it’s due to the sheer conventionality of Hancock’s writing here. The melody and harmony turn as expected, a course that he had avoided with earlier ballads like the aforementioned ‘Night Flower’ and would perfect in steering clear of on such later masterworks as ‘Little One’ and ‘Dolphin Dance’ from Maiden Voyage and ‘Toys’ from Speak Like a Child.
The album closer, ‘And What If I Don’t Know’ is similarly simple yet more pleasurable. Williams’ hop-scotch rhythm brings to mind a summer block party. The slow, ambling theme unfolds like a delicious spread and one slowly touring the picnic table to load up on cold cuts, fried chicken, potato salad and ribs, and digging into the cooler for a cold brew. There’s a relaxed, unhurried feel and the only regret is that Green was not accorded a full chorus for his solo instead of just being given the chance to jump in at the end of Hancock’s improvisation.
Weeks after My Point of View was recorded, the word began to spread around New York that Miles Davis was on the hunt for a pianist and drummer for the new quintet he was forming. The Memphis tenor saxophonist George Coleman and New York bassist Ron Carter remained from a short-lived sextet that also included alto saxophonist Frank Strozier, pianist Harold Mabern Jr. and long-time Davis associate drummer Jimmy Cobb. After six weeks on the road, Strozier and Mabern Jr. were gone and Cobb left to form a trio with pianist Wynton Kelly and bassist Paul Chambers—a unit that had served as Davis’ rhythm section from 1959 to 1962.
Soon, Jackie McLean rang up Davis to tell him about our young Bostonian, Tony Williams. After consulting with “Philly” Joe Jones, who was Davis’ drummer for years, and getting the thumbs up from him, Davis rang up Williams to come to his place to audition. Then, Davis called Hancock to come by too. After arriving, Hancock played a little for Davis. The verdict from the trumpeter? “Nice touch.” With Coleman and Carter, the quartet rehearsed while Davis retired upstairs to listen through his home intercom system. He invited them all back the next day. Again, Davis listened to them upstairs. He invited them all back the next day. This time, Davis had Jones and the great arranger Gil Evans come by too. Davis sat in for a just a few brief moments. After everyone went home, Davis gave them a call and told them to report to Columbia’s legendary 30th Street Studio the next day for a session to complete his new album, to be eventually titled Seven Steps to Heaven. And thus, Davis’ next quintet was born. Once tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter joined in the summer of 1964, it became what is feted as his Second Great Quintet, a revolutionary ensemble that set the language and framework of small-group jazz, with its loosening of harmony and time, and spirit of openness, for decades to come.
With Hancock in the piano chair in the group of jazz’s most celebrated artist, his growth as a musician over the next few years was exponential. Masterpieces like Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage were soon to follow as was a growing sensitivity with a ballad and a lighter touch to the keyboard, all rendering My Point of View as perhaps only a footnote in his path as an artist but still making clear that the path he did take afterwards was largely inevitable. Give a listen to the album and know one thing: Herbie Hancock was on his way.