Alas, the parade of passing rock stars continues. This time it’s Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane. Ironically, the Airplane – along with Herbie Hancock – are receiving a Grammy Special Merit Award. I’ll mourn Kantner’s passing here and talk more about the Airplane later down the road.
Let me here quote the Grammy write-up about Hancock:
“One of the most revered and idiosyncratic figures in jazz, Herbie Hancock has been at the forefront (of) almost every development in electronic and acoustic jazz and R&B. A stylistically diverse and ever-intriguing canon of songs, including “Maiden Voyage” and “Rockit,” has helped earn him 14 GRAMMY Awards during his impressive five-decade-plus professional solo career.”
Herbie Hancock is a prodigy who was playing Mozart on the piano at the age of eleven. (Don’t you hate that? I was struggling to work out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star on my Sears Silvertone guitar right about then.) Hancock’s work caught the attention of Miles Davis who asked him to be part of his mid-Sixties Second Great Quintet (which also included saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams.)
And during the time he was working with Miles, he was still putting out his own stuff. A classic by him is called “Maiden Voyage” from the album of the same name. The whole album has, for some reason, a nautical bent with songs like “Dolphin Dance.” This is the title tune. Check out this lineup:
Herbie Hancock (piano), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), George Coleman (tenor saxophone), Ron Carter (bass), Tony Williams, (drums). Coleman had the distinction of having also played with B.B. King for a while in the ’50’s.
In the late ’70’s, early ’80’s, Hancock toured with a band called V.S.O.P. which was basically Miles’ band minus Miles but with Freddie Hubbard. And while this quote from Wikipedia refers to his Sextet, it could just as easily apply to this group.
Hancock – “When the Sextet was at its best, the whole group was like a living body. It was a music of the moment, no regular changes, bars, or even tempo – but somehow, almost miraculously, the music would have a flow and order that made me feel like I was listening to the sound from all the planets. Trying to recapture that spirit was difficult, but it came off – it was really swinging.”
This is a nice Wayne Shorter tune called “Nefertiti.” (Shorter will figure prominently later when I post about the great band Weather Report.)
Personnel: Freddie Hubbard (flugelhorn, trumpet), Wayne Shorter (saxophones), Herbie Hancock (keyboards), Ron Carter (double bass), Tony Willams (drums).
In 1962, on his very first album, a then 22-year-old Herbie Hancock released a song he wrote called “Watermelon Man.” According to Wikipedia Hancock said, “I remember the cry of the watermelon man making the rounds through the back streets and alleys of Chicago. The wheels of his wagon beat out the rhythm on the cobblestones.” (I grew up in Philly and for the record, we had street vendors but no watermelon man).
Now it would be an easy matter to use that version. But the truth is that I didn’t hear the song till years later and when I did, it was in this oddball upbeat funk/jazz, (call it what you will) version. And I liked it! That intro is, I believe, someone blowing into a beer bottle.
This was as close to a hit as jazz had back in the ’70’s when jazz-rock was at its peak. (And Hancock’s back-and-forth between among funk/jazz and rock drives some purists crazy. I’m not a music purist, not at least since Dylan went electric in 1965. I see no reason to pigeonhole artists who need to expand. Although that said, Hancock’s song “Rockit” was just a bit too much for me.)
The band was called Headhunters. Personnel: Herbie Hancock (electric piano, synthesizers), Bennie Maupin (saxes), Paul Jackson (electric bass), Bill Summers (percussion), (Harvey Mason), drums.
At the age of 75, Hancock is still out there doing it. A quick check of his web site shows that he was touring (with Wayne Shorter!) just this past spring. And he’s playing on the Queen Mary 2 as part of something called the Blue Note Jazz at Sea Transatlantic Crossing Cruise. (Don’t be surprised if one day you get a post from me on one of these cruises).
In fact, Shorter and Hancock came to Cambridge, MA a few years back (1999) and played a nice intimate theater near Harvard Square called Sanders Theater. If these guys come to town, don’t miss ’em. There aren’t too many of these guys left that can trace their pedigree back to Miles.