April is Jazz Appreciation Month! I'm always interested in introducing students to
some great music. Since most music today is beat-based with little evidence of a
melodic line, I figure I can open up some eyes and especially ears by sharing music
that is highly rhythmic with a propulsive beat but which also explores a sequential
pattern of notes that are both pleasing and memorable. Why settle for just a beat
when you can combine it with a melody for an even more profound aural experience?
The legendary Herbie Hancock has had numerous stages in his highly-lauded
career. He has been the bandleader for so many up-and-coming artists. He
captained his VSOP band and his Headhunters combo in the 1970s. He created
a song--"Rockit"-- that became in 1983 one of the top music videos of all time
when Herbie was attempting to blend jazz and hip-hop. In 2008 he won an Album
of the Year Grammy for his Joni Mitchell tribute River. In 2013 he was a recipient
of Kennedy Center honors.
But it was his work in the 60s that helped cement my love for jazz music.
After serving an initial apprenticeship in Miles Davis's second great group, Hancock
put together his own quartet for Blue Note Records in the mid-1960s. It included
Ron Carter on bass, one of the two greatest bass players I've ever seen, Wayne
Shorter on tenor saxophone, and Tony Williams on drums. All three would forge
spectacular careers on their own following this quartet's heyday, but for five or six
years this band was one of the greatest of all time!
In 1962, Herbie started his Blue Note run. He was determined to write a popular
tune, and he came up with one of the most infectious tunes in the jazz canon,
"Watermelon Man", an instantly recognizable classic today, and such a popular hit
that it crossed over into the Billboard Top 100, the gauge for measuring success.
Hancock was only 22 at the time. After this recording, which has been recorded over
200 times, he replaced drummer Billy Higgins with a new drummer, Tony Williams,
who was just 17! Williams would provide the backbeat and brushwork for Hancock
in the decades to come. Freddie Hubbard's horn and Dexter Gordon's sax complemented
Hancock, Higgins, and Butch Warren on bass. Following this recording is a clip of Herbie
discussing the origin of the tune with Elvis Costello a few years ago. In that clip you can
see how Hancock wonderfully reinterpreted the song in the 80s.
Two years later, Hancock delivered his album Empyrean Isles. This album had Freddie Hubbard
on cornet. I saw Freddie play many nights in a jazz club, and the video below from an anniversary
tribute to Blue Note Records a few years back gives you an idea of his artistry. The song from
Empyrean Isles is called "Cantaloupe Island". It is generally considered one of the Top 25 jazz
recordings of all time.
The following year, Herbie produced his masterpiece, Maiden Voyage. The title song may be
my favorite jazz composition ever. It's certainly in the discussion. It has been recorded by many
other artists, and I love hearing other great artists interpret the tune. Bobby Hutcherson does a
terrific cover using a vibraphone as the dominant instrument with Herbie accompanying him on
piano. "Maiden Voyage" is also Hancock's favorite composition in a sixty-year career. With good reason.
Maiden Voyage was inducted as an album into the Grammy Hall of Fame twenty years ago. I'm blown
away by the fact that Herbie was only 24-years-old when he composed these songs.
As a bonus, here is Bobby Hutcherson and Herbie doing "Maiden Voyage", followed by the music
Hancock did for the soundtrack to the 1966 film Blow-Up. I hope you have enjoyed listening. Try the
Blue-Note box set of all of Hancock's recordings during that period. It's an investment that will
pay impressive dividends.