Hardly anyone needs told that pianist and composer Herbie Hancock – who turned 70 this week – has been an innovator in many different facets of music since he burst onto the jazz scene some half century ago. “Watermelon Man,” “Cantaloupe Island,” “Maiden Voyage,” “Dolphin Dance,” the brilliant Miles Davis Quintet: all of this while he was still in his twenties – and all historic before he ever plugged himself in.
When Herbie Hancock discovered the myriad joys of electric keyboards in the late 1960s (despite some flirtations on organ for Blow Up and Dave Pike’s 1966 album Jazz For The Jet Set), even listeners outside of jazz had to reckon with the deep wellspring of creativity Herbie Hancock could unleash in a variety of ways and on a multitude of keyboards. And, unlike most jazz heroes who went electric, he continued making history.
While it may be unwise to “label” Herbie Hancock’s electric periods, there are some clearly distinct landmarks and, arguably, at least four audibly separate phases. There is (Phase 1) the electric space-jazz explorations that define Hancock’s Mwandishi period (1970-72), (Phase 2) the melodic fusion funk of his Headhunters period when he hit with “Chameleon” (1973-76), (Phase 3) the uncomfortable pop/dance period marked by “I Thought It Was You” (1978-81) and (Phase 4) the “Rockit” period, where he and producer Bill Laswell joined jazz, hip hop and rock in a fusion that remains as unique and unprecedented today as it was then (1983-88).
Of course, the pianist never shied away from the acoustic piano during these various phases and recorded a surprisingly vast number of straight-ahead jazz albums during the time. As a fusion pioneer, Herbie Hancock is even occasionally convinced to revisit electric avenue as he has done on 1994’s Dis Is Da Drum (which I have recently begun to respect and enjoy anew) and 2001’s Future 2 Future and 2002’s marvelous DVD Future 2 Future Live.
While my collection bulges with many Herbie Hancock discs, I’ve never really caught the bug of the keyboardist’s third-phase fusion. Not only was it stacked with far too many vocal pieces, many of the tunes had Herbie – who has a fairly decent singing voice – singing through a vocoder, a sort of vocal synthesizer. Since the vocoder makes its user sound like a robot in a bad sci-fi movie, it was hard to take any of this music seriously.
Indeed, as things progressed, Herbie’s keyboards – and those magically musical solos - were minimized to present some sort of idea of a popular dance song. In most cases, this meant disco. Yet, while Herbie Hancock was amazing with funk, he was hopelessly out of his element in disco. Hardly any of the music he made during this period ranks with even his middling work, in or out of the electric periods. But though many, including myself, have concluded all the music on all the albums from this period sounds like this – it’s been easy to dismiss this period in total, which is completely unfair.
As someone who had to buy Bitches Brew no less than five different times before hearing its utterly timeless brilliance, I have recently been compelled to revisit Herbie Hancock’s third-phase fusion records and have discovered quite a bit more to enjoy and appreciate than I would have ever thought. Here’s what I learned this time out.
Sunlight (Columbia, 1978): This album represents a real turning point in Herbie Hancock’s discography. It is the first of what could be considered the keyboardist’s more popular-oriented recordings. Indeed, the weird “I Thought It Was You” became a mild radio hit, due, no doubt, to Columbia’s push to make it a dance floor favorite (something that succeeded somewhat, given the multiple 12-inch pressings of the song that litter used-record store bins today). It certainly curried favor in European clubs. But the song, and the subsequent album, was disregarded by most jazz listeners and certainly by anybody who favored Herbie Hancock’s previously polymorphous perverse musical experiments. “I Thought It Was You” hardly ranks as one of Herbie Hancock’s best. But Byron Miller’s bass line is imminently funky and propels the groove pretty much on all the right frequencies. Hancock’s Rhodes interjections outweigh the bizarre Vocoder vocalisms and are particularly nice, even though the somewhat slight jazzy additions heard in this sort of groove would decrease substantially as time wore on. The keyboardist is credited as sole writer on three of the five tunes here and, of course, they’re the best of the bunch. “Sunlight” is a great slice of funk that could have been better if someone would have let the improvisers take more control. The tune features Hancock’s Vocoder vocals, an intriguing but brief electronic scat solo (plus a nice, but brief synth solo) and the great Bennie Maupin’s extraordinarily brief soprano sax solo. The beautifully instrumental “No Means Yes” is exactly how one would hope to hear Herbie Hancock in 1978: a little fusion-y, a little funky and totally electric in a nicely Fender Rhodes sort of way (drummer Harvey Mason and percussionist Bill Summers rejoin Hancock here for the full effect). “Good Question” refreshingly features Hancock on acoustic piano (and something that adds a bit of steel drum to his sound) with Jaco Pastorius on bass, Tony Williams on drums and Patrick Gleeson on synthesizers. “Come Running to Me,” with Paul Jackson (who also appears on “No Means Yes”) on bass, could have been a great outtake from either Thrust or Secrets - without the needless lyrics sung by Hancock on Vocoder by pop wordsmith Allee Willis (“Boogie Wonderland” as well as other hits including the Friends theme “I’ll Be There For You”). Still it’s a good piece of fusion musicianship. It’s not the ideal way to hear Herbie Hancock. But it’s not the worst you could do. Highlights: "Sunlight," “No Means Yes” and “Good Question.”
Feets Don’t Fail Me Now (Columbia, 1979): Like many sophomore albums, this follow-up to Herbie Hancock’s mildly successful Sunlight tries to repeat a hopeless formula to a disastrous degree. A great title and inviting cover art, unfortunately, don’t an album make. Feets Don’t Fail Me Now is proof. One would have thought that the great Herbie Hancock was beyond this sort of thing at this point. But, commerce is as commerce does. The hyper-kinetic “You Better Bet Your Love” followed up “I Thought It Was You” in the same way: Vocoder vocals, electric rhythms and a jazzer's goofy idea of what appealed to disco dancers (a nice Fender Rhodes solo is wasted here for people that probably wanted to hear any number of other things when getting down). It’s just not that fun or that funky. The remainder of the album is surprisingly generic. There are lots of Vocoder violations, faux funk, synthesized scintillations and words to incite a party that never seems to happen, including Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” template, “Ready or Not” (Parker, who was hitting with his group Raydio at the time, did much session work with Herbie Hancock and this song was one of the album’s singles). Things don’t start happening until the very end, when the very Headhunters-like disco groove of the great “Knee Deep” rolls out. Bennie Maupin makes it all possible on soprano sax. Accompanying Hancock and Maupin here are Wah Wah Watson on guitar, Freddie Washington on bass and James Levi on drums (sounding very much like Harvey Mason) – with a “Rise”-like bridge. All roads lead to “Knee Deep” here and, sadly, there just isn’t enough of “Knee Deep” or anything like it on Feets Don’t Fail Me Now. Highlights: “Knee Deep.”
Monster (Columbia, 1980): This is the Herbie Hancock disco album. This seems fine in theory. Even magical. But there’s not one instrumental here and not one sign that Herbie Hancock’s creativity had anything to do with making this happen. The great composer is listed as a co-writer on only three of the album’s six tracks, all designed for dance floors or radio airplay. But none of these songs rank anywhere near something that could be considered memorable. For the record, the disco is hardly awful. And there are occasional flourishes of Hancock’s workmanlike keyboard prowess. But you’d have to go to any of Hancock’s session work of the time to hear him represented more appropriately. Hancock is featured on a myriad of rather anonymous sounding keyboards along with Wah Wah Watson on guitar, Freddie Washington on bass, Alphonse Mouzon on drums (and synthesizers) and Sheila E (Escovedo) on percussion. Vocalists such as Greg Walker (“Saturday Night,” “Making Love”), Gavin Christopher (“Stars In Your Eyes” and the funky “Don’t Hold It In”), Oren Waters (“Go For It”) and Bill Champlin (on the Yes-ish art-rock-gone-disco take of “It All Comes Round”) relieve Hancock from his vocal duties – and that’s a plus. Carlos Santana has an interesting yet almost undistinguished feature on the Chic-ish “Saturday Night,” a disco track with Cuban influences (Hancock features prominently on Santana’s The Swing of Delight from around the same time). Randy Hansen’s metal-edged, “Hendrix emulated” guitar gets a surprising prominence on “Don’t Hold It In” and “It All Comes Around,” giving a rather unexpected edge to the music that would have benefitted more by Hancock’s participation. It’s fun to listen to for the most part but never engaging and hardly memorable. Highlights: Sadly, none.
Mr. Hands (Columbia, 1980): This is nothing less than a total return to form that finds Herbie Hancock mercifully abandoning all attempts at dance-floor music and vocal pop hope-to-be’s to concentrate on the music he hadn’t really explored since the 1976 album Secrets: fusion, that prevalent form of jazz so pervasive at the time. Refreshingly, that put his keyboard prowess back out front – where it belongs. What a breath of fresh air. While it’s not as great an album as Headhunters, Thrust or Man-Child, Mr. Hands ranks high in Herbie Hancock’s electric catalog and, most certainly, highest in Hancock’s third-phase fusion period for its devotion to jazz – even in the rather flailing journey popular jazz music was taking at this point. The album proclaims that Herbie Hancock plays all of the keyboards and, for the most part, that is imminently audible (apart from some rather annoying synthesizer noodles). But the occasional accompaniment is worth noting. The great “Spiraling Prism,” is classic Thrust-era L.A. fusion presented in Herbie Hancock’s inimitable way with Bennie Maupin on tenor sax, Paul Jackson on bass, Harvey Mason on drums and Bill Summers on percussion. Hancock’s “Calypso” nicely reunites the pianist with his Miles Davis Quintet mates Tony Williams on drums and Ron Carter on bass. It’s a great performance highlighting Hancock’s ability to signify with electronics and solo – magnificently! – on acoustic piano. The moody “4 AM” features Hancock on a variety of interesting keyboards with Harvey Mason on drums, Bill Summers on percussion and, notably, the late, great and lamented Jaco Pastorius nicely plying his trade on the electric bass. Hancock briefly revisits his Headhunters territory with the fascinating “Shiftless Shuffle,” co-written by Headhunters Herbie Hancock, Bennie Maupin, Harvey Mason, Paul Jackson and Bill Summers and featuring each in nice measure (though Maupin isn’t heard nearly enough, as was evident on “Sunlight”). Unfortunately, Herbie Hancock wouldn’t sound this interesting again until 1982’s Future Shock, which, of course, hit big with his great “Rockit.” Highlights: “Spiraling Prism,” “Calypso,” “4 AM,” “Shiftless Shuffle” (the last of which can also be heard on the Japanese-only album Direct Step).
Magic Windows (Columbia, 1981): Following in the footsteps of the sadly negligible Monster, Magic Windows updates the dance formula previously on display slightly beyond the now pretty much reviled disco genre to something that’s more of an R&B groove that would appeal to 80s listeners now too cool (or too old?) for the 70s excesses of formulaic dance music. Sadly, this is a bit too stylized too. But, still, it’s the right way to go if you want to head this way. Herbie Hancock is at least credited as co-writer on each of the album’s six tracks – and, indeed, he seems more a part of the proceedings than he seemed on Monster (the brief keyboard solos here are very much worth hearing). Five of the six tracks presented are vocal tracks. “Magic Number,” with the great Sylvester on vocals, gets things off to a good start. Hancock takes a nice Fender Rhodes solo and the Escovedo family (Sheila, Pete and Juan) provide some nice Latin-esque percussion highlights. The verses are a little down-tempo for the great groove that’s initially set up. But it’s quite surprising that this wasn’t more of a hit in its day. While it’s not “Do You Wanna Funk” good, it’s good stuff none the less. Gavin Christopher provides vocals on three of the album’s tracks: the P-Funk-like “Everybody’s Broke” (HH is said to be a huge fan of P-Funskter Bernie Worrell – and this is probably the evidence that most closely corroborates that), the funky “Help Yourself” and “Satisfied With Love.” These tracks suggest that Herbie Hancock was seeking some of the same kind of solo success that Quincy Jones was experiencing at the time (the following Lite Me Up confirms this). There is still some originality in the hopefulness here. The great Michael Brecker, who was part of Hancock’s Directions in Music aggregate some two decades later, is featured ever so briefly on “Tonight’s The Night” and “Help Yourself.” Like Feets Don’t Fail Me Now, the album’s final track is the most notable performance of all. And it’s a doosie. Hancock, on a variety of 80s keyboards, collaborates (rather surprisingly) with prototypical 80s downtown guitarist Adrian Belew on the marvelously magisterial techno-funk of “The Twilight Clone” (with The Brothers Johnson and Paulinho da Costa helping out), prefiguring the direction Hancock would take a few years later with Bill Laswell. It’s a shame that Hancock couldn’t have recruited Belew to help more with the rest of this album. Something very exciting could have resulted. As is, we have about eight minutes that seem to go some place and 35 minutes that take us where we’ve all been before. Highlights: “The Twilight Clone” and, possibly, “Magic Number.”
Lite Me Up (Columbia, 1982): Of all Herbie Hancock albums released, this is the most un-Herbie Hancock album ever. He hardly seems present. None of the eight tracks presented here are instrumentals and some don’t even sound like Herbie is participating in any way. He “produces” most of the tracks heard here and hit-meisters Jay Graydon and Narada Michael Walden each produce a track a piece for some reason. Hancock takes a few vocals (with and without the vocoder) and engages in one or two brief electric piano solos. But otherwise, it would be hard for anyone taking a blindfold test to guess Herbie Hancock is playing anything (or anything of any value) on any of these songs. Since former Heatwave (“Boogie Nights,” “Always and Forever”) composer Rod Temperton is credited as creator of the bulk of the album, the album comes off sounding like a low-rent Michael Jackson album (Temperton wrote “Rock With You” and “Thriller”), part two of Quincy Jones’ hit 1981 album The Dude (Temperton wrote three of the LP’s songs including “Razzamatazz”) or a less exciting version of Bob James’ much better 1982 album Sign of the Times, another letdown that Temperton had a big hand in. Some of the songs are somewhat catchy (“Lite Me Up,” “Getting’ To the Good Part,” “Motor Mouth”) and the seven and a half minute “Give It All Your Heart” comes close to being good. There is absolutely no jazz or any attempt to get creative in any way here. It’s programmatic dance music at its most uninspired. Lite Me Up is a huge disappointment that will appeal to hardcore Rod Temperton fans much more than anyone remotely interested in anything Herbie Hancock does. Hard to believe that the great Future Shock was next in Herbie Hancock’s fusion future. Nothing here suggests the originality of that album. Highlights: Sadly, none.