Listen to this piece by post-bop keyboard innovator and soundtrack composer Herbie Hancock, ‘Tell Me A Bedtime Story’ as taken from the album Fat Albert Rotunda. The music on this album, including this piece, originally served as the soundtrack to Bill Cosby’s first Fat Albert TV special, aired in 1969.
Herbie Hancock had served under the tutelage of Miles Davis for a significant period of both men’s careers, from 1963 to 1968, although he’d cut classic jazz records as a leader in between those years as well including Empyrean Isles, Speak Like A Child, and Maiden Voyage. All of these records forged what is now known in jazz circles as ‘post-bop’, which is an amalgm of all that jazz had come to mean by that time, incorporating everything from modal jazz, bop, avante-garde, and free-jazz, yet still retaining something of an ear for mood and melodic effect. Like many of Davis’ proteges, Hancock was barely out of his teens, supremely gifted, and above all musically curious. And therefore, his efforts in bringing the new ingredients in jazz together with the old would not be where Hancock would rest.
Hancock had been involved with soundtracks for films before. He’d scored the film Blow Up, directed by Michealangelo Antonioni. But, by 1969 he’d been invited to score an entirely different project; an animated special featuring the central figure of one Fat Albert, based on a boyhood friend of comedian Bill Cosby. The special was among the first of its kind, a children’s tale as set in the inner city projects based on Cosby’s Philadelphia upbringing. The music needed to follow suit with the material, which allowed Hancock access into another form of jazz – jazz funk.
Hancock assembled a nonet for the music he’d written, which included saxophonist Joe Henderson, Johnny Coles on trumpet and flugelhorn, Garnett Brown on trombone, and others. Hancock played electric piano, and synthesizers, recently becoming enamoured of electronics and electric instruments, independent of his mentor Miles Davis’ similar interest as revealed on Davis’ Bitches Brew LP released around the same time. But where Davis’ exploration of electric instrumentation was about whipping the sound into a frenzy in order to produce a raw groove, Hancock’s Fat Albert Rotunda was about lyrical arrangements, and a jovial, playful spirit in relation to his subject matter.
This piece in particular is something of a favourite for me, a melodic and atmospheric tune that could have come off as a throwaway from a lesser artist. But, there seems to be real connection with childhood here, with a feeling that Hancock wanted the sound of innocence to be captured, without it sounding trite or patronizing. I think he succeeds brilliantly, with his dreamy Fender Rhodes piano whispering behind the gentle lead voice of Coles’ flugelhorn. And I love that the horns are used orchestrally, rather than held back until solos. It really lets the melody, and the feel of the piece, breathe a bit more. This is one of my favourite instrumental pieces by anyone. It’s gentle, and kind of sad too, capturing possibly the most central aspect of childhood innocence – the promise of its ending.
Hancock would continue to press the boundaries of jazz with his seminal 1973 jazz-funk classic Headhunters, which made critics wonder whether Hancock was still a jazz musician, and whether his record was jazz. Yet, Fat Albert Rotunda, and “Tell Me A Bedtime Story” remains to be something of a unique statement between standard post-bop, and the blurry lines between genres that Hancock would explore while also taking on electro-funk and early hip-hop sounds in the decades to follow.
For more information about Herbie Hancock, check out his website.