Herbie Hancock: A Tribute To The Electronic Headhunter

Herbie Hancock Secrets

Celebrating the 75th birthday today? I began to realize the breadth and variety of the fantastic musical career of Mister Herbert Jeffrey Hancock.  From working with Donald Byrd very early on to his recent work with nu jazz artist Flying Lotus? Herbie has been much like his former employer Miles Davis in the sense that he has taken his own style as a pianist/keyboardist through a number of distinctly different musical periods.

Realizing that my knowledge of Herbie’s music lays mainly in his electric period? It became quickly apparent that there are actually a number of musical period’s in and of themselves during this one particular period. So I am going to present to you album reviews I’ve done for his music. With one album representing each different period of Herbie Hancock’s electric period which extended over three decades. Hope you all enjoy it!

The Blue Note Years

The Prisoner (1969)-Blue Note

Well,there’s no doubt that the last couple of years of the 60’s certainly provided a fertile musical ground for a jazz musician to create in. There were so many culturally/sociological transitions occurring at the same it,the importance of improvisation in general was paramount. Herbie Hancock himself was in a similar state of transition during 1969. He was easing himself out of Miles Davis’s 60’s era Quintet. And both he and Miles were about to about to enter into the world of electric jazz-making inroads into that area that were similar songs with a different tune-to extend on that little metaphor. For this album Herbie was playing with a 10 piece big band that included the likes of bassist Buster Williams,flutist Huber Laws,drummer Tootie Heath and saxophone extraordinaire Joe Henderson for an album that marked both the end of an era for him as well as the beginning of a new one.

“I Have A Dream”,a tribute to the recently slain MLK is a beautiful ten minute+ tone samba during which Henderson,Heath and Hancock expresses extremely conversational harmonies with themselves and each other that are bound to engender some emotional response. The title song as well as “Firewater” (the only non Hancock composition here” and “He Who Lives” are all a bit instrumentally cooler-focusing on swinging bop style numbers where the rhythm section takes presidents. And on which Herbie himself engages in plenty of his trademark bravely scaling piano arpeggios-harmonizing with himself between both bass and higher tenor tonalities. “Promise Of The Sun” seems to be indicate a similar rhythm section based bop number at first. Yet by the songs end? The melodic horn harmonics of the septet of horn players on this album provides a gently orchestral coda to the album itself.

This album doesn’t tend to rate as either great or terrible among Herbie’s many albums. And it isn’t 100% instrumentally groundbreaking exactly to be said. What does make this album rank so high to me was the feeling of it,which is key to jazz music anyway. The mixture of Herbie’s bluesy electric piano and virtuosic harmony style on the acoustic upright combine with the big band featured on this album to create a very probing musical atmosphere. The musicians are all searching. Not searching for a sound. But for a future that is yet to come for the nation and the world. Recorded in the spring of 1969,this albums looks ahead in its instrumental conceptions towards what the 1970’s would bring. For Herbie himself? It would bring a change in music completely opposite to this-as he was about to leave Blue Note for Warner Brothers after this album. His personal life and identity would soon make a change that would showcase that new evolution in his music. For a coda to the first phase of his career? It would be pretty hard pressed to find a more instrumentally fulfilling way to go about that than this!

Mwandishi

Fat Albert Rotunda (1969)-Warner Bros. 

Counting about 99.8 % of the music on this album ‘Fat Albert Rotunda’ is Herbie Hancock’s first dive into the world of funk-jazz,a just blooming genre in 1969 when this was recorded and a style he wouldn’t return to for another five years or so.As for the jazz side of his personality only “Tell Me A Bedtime Story”,with it’s gentle theatrics,works in this arena.Otherwise this album is pretty much instrumental funk,upbeat and well made but probably not quite as thrilling and DEFINITELY not as innovative as later such efforts as ‘Thrust’, “Man-Child’,’Secrets’ and of course ‘Headhunters’.But once fans of Herbie’s funkier style have purchased those recordings (which are essential) this album is the next logical step to walk in.

The Headhunters

Secrets (1976)-Columbia

It is from this album that I actually coined a whole definition for a certain kind of music from the 70’s,inspired by the title of a particularly funky song on this…particularly funky album. Herbie was on this huge musical winning streak in the mid 70’s and,even so this album really stands out very strong even for this period in his career! One of main reasons is the addition of Ray Parker Jr who,much as the Brothers Johnson had on the previous album Man-Child had really gone above and beyond in his ability to enhance and add great flavors to the already well established Headhunters sound. Not only is this one of Herbie’s most funky albums albums of this period but also his most thoroughly ear catching and….pretty melodic since Head Hunters and it’s also the most similar one they made to it. All their music from this period was that way but the previous two albums had gone after some more experimental type sounds. This one not only gets back to the basics but adapts on the sound in all kinds of different ways. In every measurable sense this is a funk album through and through but not every song is alike.

“Doin’ It” is…..well I’d say it was the best tune here but every one is so excellent that’s hard to say but it’s certainly one of the very strongest jams of 1976,a year full of ’em. The song starts from this Ray Parker riff that….builds into another riff until Herbie’s keyboards and synthesizers kick and and build on top of them unti Ray starts singing “just keep on doing it!”. This is a pointed reminder of the building nature of funk in it’s heyday. His remake of his own “Cantaloupe Island” adds a this Afro-Caribbean stomp,along with kind of this marching “big four” jazz beat to the funk and gives the tune some extra added bounce. “Spider” is just an amazing song;like the theme song to a kind of “techno-blacksploitation” movie never made with it’s bassy synth fanfare and that heavy chase scene rhythm. “Gentle Thoughts” is probably the most commercial sounding groove here as it sticks closest to the melody and sound fairly light for this type of album.

As for it’s overall atmospherics…well lets just say it’s most fittin that Lee Ritenour actually used this song as the title cut for his next album Gentle Thoughts. “Swamp Rat” is…among one of the most harmonically advanced tunes Herbie ever made with yet more fan-faring bass synths and,as for the second half of the song Paul Jackson’s bass and Bennie Maupin’s passionate work on sax and reeds carry that area. As for Maupin he gets a big kudos on his own “Sansho Shima” at the end of the album,which has this very strong Afro Cuban jazz flavor with the procrastination being bought to the forefront and the funk kind of riding along in the middle. This album is kind of ignored because it’s sandwiched after some well known classics and comes right before his disco-funk period-itself HIGHLY underrated. There is a progression from one to the other yet in terms of Herbie’s powers as a soloist,bandleader and composer in the 70’s,never-mind his funkiness this album is one of many that can’t be beat!

Funk/Disco Jazz

Feet’s Don’t Fail Me Now (1979)-Columbia

Often times I hear the late 70’s end of the funk era as being dismissed and harshly judged. Always chalked it up to the fact that the disco era,which came to an end in the year this particular album was released,attracted at least as many detractors as a genre as individual artists such as Beyonce do today. Aside from that music culture battle,nothing would keep funk,soul and dance artists from seeking new rhythmic ways with which to make their music as danceable and spirited as it could possibly be. I first heard this CD as part of my fathers collection. At the time I’d never heard any of the music Herbie Hancock had done between Head Hunters and Future Shock.

Nor was I aware that he even made any music between that time. So upon hearing this 1979 album for the first time? It was instantly exciting. Well at least tracks 1,3 and 4 were since they were the only ones I was fixated on for an unknown reason. Now over a decade and a half later I have the opportunity to view this album in the context of not only having heard Herbie’s other albums from the mid/late 70’s and early 80’s,but also other similar music from others artists made during this time period. So there is an understanding of the root of this sound that wasn’t present when I first heard this. So after so many years with this album,here are my current impressions of it.

The opener “You Bet You Love” is a glistening and rather enchanting disco friendly number with an extremely funky bass/guitar line that builds into Herbie’s swelling synthesizers-again married with a strong singalong melody that concludes with Herbie (as always during this time through his Vocoder) howling soulfully in the best manner of space-funk vocalizing. “Ready Or Not” is a Ray Parker Jr. penned funk groove filled with layered bass synthesizers along with Herbie’s melodic leads-featuring a choir of singers as opposed to Herbie and a sound very much out of the late 70’s Raydio type sound-only with a far more Afro-Latin oriented percussion break courtesy of Bill Summers.

“Tell Everybody” is a powerful,heavy bass/guitar led disco-funk jam with Herbie sharing vocals with the choir of singers on Vocoder-and again solid proof that Afro Latin percussion in the disco era did hold strong ethnic identification in the most instrumental oriented of hands. Now those are the numbers I was always most inclined towards here at the time of first hearing it. “Trust Me” is a slow,dripping samba type slow groove with a powerfully complex melody with Herbie vocoderizing a poignant lyric of romantic insecurity. “Honey From The Jar” is a slow crawling,bluesy and glassy dyno’d electric pinao driven slice of harder edged funk-showcasing a very chunky bass line. “Knee Deep” (not the Funkadelic classic of course) begins in a disco-funk oriented mode before descending deep into a heavily phased drum break/bass line for the deepest end of futurist funk.

Probably the most well know story of Herbie Hancock in the 1970’s was him always having to somehow justify his alternating between electric and acoustic playing throughout the decade. With that debate raging on among critics,he again ran into a similar musical syndrome to Miles that with all the controversy a lot of people missed out on the fact that,when playing funk oriented music,Herbie Hancock was helping to innovate even some unexplored tributaries of the funk-jazz genre. Because of Herbie’s assertion that funk’s strong roots in the Earth gave the music more room for rhythmic and melodic flight,he and Bill Summers in particular were able to use this music to fully explorer the percussively rhythmic possibilities that lay within the fact that the disco era funk music was extremely popular and even innovated on in Africa itself at the time.

And that is basically the spirit that comes from this particular album. It all the most shiny engineering and production gloss of any of Herbie’s 70’s funk-fusion albums. Yet at the same time,the rhythms that are colored by this effect are extremely strong and varied. The musical synergy that always seemed to exist between Herbie and Ray Parker Jr. is seen to enormous effect on this album. It showcases the strong instrumental compatibility that would show them collaborating so often during the years 1978-1981. So I must agree with writer Ricky Vincent that this was one of the strongest funk albums of the disco era. And one of Herbie’s strongest funk records as well.

Electro Funk/Hip-Hop

Sound-System (1984)-Columbia

With the success of Future Shock and its big hit “Rockit”,Herbie had made one significant musical contribution to the 80’s decade: he managed to put an instrumental dance record onto the pop charts and even the music video world. And opened up the door for other musicians such as contemporaries of his such as Jan Hammer to do the same. The following year Herbie was back in the studio with Bill Laswell to record the follow up to that album. As he was in the early 70’s,Herbie was continually fascinated by how to combine the modern electronic/hip-hop sample/scratch oriented effects that interested him with the heavily Afrocentric variety of funk. Again on the heels of another possible cultural innovation,Herbie bought in the Gambian musician Foday Musa Suso,who played an electrified African string instrument called the Kora,which produced a reverb laden Harp-like effect. This would have the effect of extending even further on the musical revelations he’d made on his previous album.

“Hard Rock”,”Metal Beat” and the closing title track are all very much in line with the approach of “Rockit”,but the instrumental sound is very different. The rhythmic patterns,keyboard parts and the addition of the Kora on the title song especially infuse these songs with an enormous Afro-Latin quality about them-which draws out the expansiveness of the groove and manage to make the electronics of it seem totally non-rigid. “Karabali” has almost no relation to these songs at all-its an almost totally African,almost Cameroonian Makossa beat type number built heavily around Suso’s Kora. “Junku” perfectly blends the tight and danceable electro-funk sound of Herbie’s with the same Kora sound. Bernard Fowler returns for another vocal number in the bluesy funk of “People Are Changing”,very much a generational cautionary take where Herbie delights on both synthesizer and acoustic piano alternately. The bonus track is an extended version of “Metal Beat”,which draws out the African percussion element even more.

Something tells me this album didn’t resonate with the public the same as its predecessor had. And it isn’t because the album is too repetitious of it. It actually isn’t at all. But the basis for all of the songs on this album are African oriented drum patters and different rhythmic ideas-with anything American blues based rarely being showcased. While this album is chocked full of massively grooving break dance friendly electro funk,the basis for it isn’t particularly American it all. It takes the heavy Afro-Latin influence of the previous album to a whole other level in fact. In many ways,that makes this one of Herbie’s best albums of the 80’s as the music is extremely close to his heart in the sense of being technically futurist yet rhythmically grounded in the tradition of the Earth itself. Manu DiBango himself could extend on the sound from his album in particular on his own release from the following year Electric Africa. As for this,Herbie may very well have sparked the public’s interest in Africa and African musical rhythms during the mid 1980’s. So again Herbie himself gained some success for himself while being a trailblazer.

Acid Jazz

Return Of The Headhunters (1998)-Universal

Herbie Hancock made a valiant but no altogether creatively vibrant comeback with Dis Is Da Drum. He began making acoustic records for the rest of the decade which,actually focused on reinventing songs that were originally done electrically. During this time there was a revival of funk in a more organic musical form. And later in a decade a particular focus on the jazz-funk side of things. New bands such as Brand New Heavies,Jamiroquai and a revived Incognito came out of the UK as part of this boom. The acid jazz boom. This was an excellent environment for Herbie to revive the band that got the ball rolling on the jazz-funk movement of the 70’s in the first place: The Headhunters. But would Paul Kackson,Bill Summers,Bennie Maupin and Mike Clark be interested in putting the band back together and…well doing “it” again? Looks like the did. This time to remain contemporary they bought in guests both old and new,from Patrice Rushen to BNH’s own N’Dea Davenport. And off the went!

“Funk Hunter” gets things off to an excellent start. All the old magic of Headhunters funk is fully intact from Herbie’s reverbed clavinets to the stop/start rhythms. “Skank It” actually ups the funk ante even more with some high octane rhythms and Bennie Maupin going right for it on saxes and reeds. “Watch Your Back” is the only number here featuring rapping. But the rap has jazz cultural value and the music around it is still the Headhunters funk. “Frankie And Kevin” is a more mellower recording with Davenport on lead vocals. She stretches out vocally even further on the catchy and jazzy funk piece “Tip Toe”,another of my favorites here. “Premonition” and “6/8-7/8” go right for the heavier jazz jugular with Bennie Maupin stretching out on the solos in a more abstract way he might’ve before his Headhunter years. Both are very strong again compositionally. “Kwanzaa” is another favorite of mine here. It has a long going on in it. There’s this polyrhythmic atmosphere, layered keyboard/synthesizer solos and some unusual but memorable melodic phrases.

Much more organic,better produced and featuring far far stronger compositions than Herbie’s previous album of all original material this actually served to re-introduce a musical collective/band that I still don’t feel is quite given the credit due them. The Headhunters cannot get the credit for out and out creating jazz-funk as a subgenre. But the sure pioneered it by really showcasing so many of it’s most important elements. There was the African rhythmic influence. That emphasis on stop/start rhythms on unexpected time signatures for another. And there was also that close and unique musical chemistry that all of these musicians had that made it all work. Truth be said this album has just a tad more vocals than the original Headhunter era albums ever had. Not to mention on that level how much more oriented it is around guests in that area. But it all functions very much as a complete musical unit rather than some example of one upsmanship. The Headhunters purpose as a band is ultimately fulfilled here as their strengths and weaknesses are complimented as well as they ever were. And this all makes this joyful,funky music to hear.


And there we have it: my own list of the Herbie Hancock albums that I feel represent the strongest of each period of his electronic jazz-funk oriented creations. The fact that the man has branched out so many tributaries as an electric player shows just the expansiveness not only of Herbie himself,but of the jazz/funk musical combination itself. And it’s an expansiveness that continues to develop here in the new millennium.

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Filed under 1970's, 1980's, 1990s, Acid Jazz, Bennie Maupin, Bernard Fowler, Bill Summers, Disco, electric jazz, Foday Musa Suso, Fusion, Harvey Mason, Headhunters, Herbie Hancock, Jazz-Funk, Mike Clark, Paul Jackson, Ray Parker Jr.

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