Herbie Hancock Plays “Chameleon”

Herbie Hancock Head HuntersListen to this track by jazz-funk pioneer, future electro innovator, and all-around influential musical barrier-breaker-downer Herbie Hancock. It’s “Chameleon”, a key track on his seminal 1973 album Head Hunters.

That record would spin the heads of many who’d first heard it, perhaps not being able to immediately figure out whether or not it was a jazz record. Many of these people would be the critics. Well, it certainly is a jazz record. But, it also carries with it influences that stood apart from the traditions of the jazz world at the time too; Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and the funk genre in general, which is in turn very much influenced by jazz. Talk about spinning heads!

The barriers between the musical forms expressed here had always been fairly permeable. But, as jazz expanded its borders by the end of the ’60s, the definition of jazz as a musical form became harder to ascertain. It had shifted, and morphed, having taken on new influences, as it had done since it was first recorded.

In the middle of all of that, this record was a big seller, standing as a sign of the musical times where the evolution of jazz was concerned.  And it would provide an avenue that would open things up for Hancock, and for other musicians down the road. Read more

Herbie Hancock Plays ‘Tell Me A Bedtime Story’

fat_albert_rotundaListen 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.


Herbie Hancock Performs ‘Maiden Voyage’

Maiden_Voyage_(Hancock)Here’s a clip which montages Herbie Hancock’s title track from his 1965 album, Maiden Voyage .

By the mid-60s, rock music was changing with the British invasion, Motown, the R&B boom in London, and Bob Dylan going electric. But, jazz was changing too just as it had in the 40s with bebop, drifting away from speed of sound soloing which was established in bebop at that time into a more leisurely space , allowing soloists to ‘stretch out‘ in kind. But, some of the best examples of this new trend in jazz concentrated as much on melody and lyricism as it did on personal expression. This track is a great example of this, with many different melodies revealing themselves in the solos, some of which are only truly revealed on the second or third listen. That’s the great thing about jazz from this era – it keeps on giving.

The personnel on the track is Hancock himself on piano, holding down the syncopated rhythm which is the engine of the piece. Freddie Hubbard is on trumpet, while fellow Miles Davis alumnus George Coleman plays tenor saxophone. The rhythm section is the ever-present Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums.

Herbie HancockListening to this, it’s hard to believe that this music came out the same year as Sonny & Cher. This is not to knock “I Got You Babe”, but the point is that this music sounds as though it’s from another world entirely, streets ahead of what was happening in the pop charts. Later, rock music and jazz would dovetail into fusion, brought about largely by Hancock and Coleman’s former bandleader Miles Davis. Hancock himself would align his sound with funk, and collaborate with non-jazz artists like Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell, to name a few. He would even branch out into hip hop and electro in the early 80s. Yet, in this brief period between cool jazz, The New Thing‘, and fusion, jazz seemed to exist on a plane of its own, neither threatened nor overshadowed by what was happening in the pop world.

Maiden Voyage was an important track and an important record in my own pursuits in learning about how rich jazz is. It taught my ear to appreciate subtlety, patience, and the value of musical tension. Where pop is immediate, a sugar rush, jazz takes its time, doesn’t spoon feed it to you, but let’s you discover the nuances of its flavours for yourself.


1985 Grammy Awards Synthesizer Demo – Hancock, Wonder, Jones, and Dolby

Here’s a clip from the 1985 Grammy awards with Stevie Wonder, Howard Jones, Herbie Hancock, and Thomas Dolby playing a synthesizer medley.

1985 Grammy Awards

This clip was meant to show off, ’80s style, modern musical technology with the keyboard/midi toys as used by innovators in their field. Wonder and Hancock were the synthesizer pioneers, while Dolby and Jones were the popsters who were meant to represent their successors, maybe. I just remember being very impressed at the time, and everyone at school talked about it the next day. These days, it stands as being pretty dated. But, a part of me still thrills at it in all of its cheesy glory.

This is about as 1985 as you can get, people. Check Dolby’s Beethoven wig. Check Howard Jones’ haircut! Still, Stevie Wonder sings, which is usually pretty thrilling (‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’ notwithstanding…). And Hancock plays a snippet of his electro-hip hop hit ‘Rockit’, the one with the crazy video which was also talked about in the schoolyard. All in all, this is a taste of a more innocent age, back when everything was better when it was digital, and when technology in general was looked upon as the way to a bright, worry-free future.