Herbie Hancock hasn’t had one career in music—he’s had around a half-dozen. Whether as a ‘60s era Blue Note jazz pianist and bandleader, ‘70s fusion innovator, funk/electro experimentalist, sideman to Miles Davis, guest artist for the likes of Stevie Wonder, and even a purveyor of disco, Herbie Hancock has always had his finger on the pulse while keeping his others on the keys. He’s also the rare jazz musician that can boast a long list of "hits": "Watermelon Man," "Rockit," "Cantaloupe Island," "Chameleon," and so on. And they all represent different stages of his musical evolution.
Ahead of his upcoming show in San Diego, I’ve assembled five deep cuts that might be lesser known but similarly showcase the kind of innovation and stylistic experimentation that has made Herbie Hancock such a fascinating and rewarding artist to follow over the years.
(from Empyrean Isles, 1964)
Just a couple years after releasing "Watermelon Man," a song that’s now a standard in the jazz canon, Hancock delivered the full-length album Empyrean Isles, which contained some of his most progressive and experimental ideas at the time—as well as some of his most accessible (see: "Cantaloupe Island," also a standard). "Oliliqui Valley" is more atmospheric and mysterious, less immediate perhaps than some of the standout tracks early on his career, but with more exotic tones and fascinating nuances.
(from Fat Albert Rotunda, 1969)
Hancock’s career has found him, essentially, in a nonstop state of evolution. So inevitably that means delivering more than his share of surprises since the early ‘60s. In 1969 he released an album titled Fat Albert Rotunda, featuring songs inspired by the cartoon show, and by and large there’s a playful and colorful sensibility. "Jessica" is a bit more spacious and melancholy, and its opening piano riff ended up in an unexpected place 25 years later: sampled in the Mobb Deep gangsta rap single "Shook Ones Pt. II".
"Ostinato (Suite for Angela)"
(from Mwandishi, 1971)
Before Hancock released the million-seller Head Hunters in 1973, he began to experiment more with electric jazz sounds, one of the best of the bunch being Mwandishi. The name of the album comes from a Swahili word for "writer," and "Ostinato" finds Hancock pursuing a spacious, exploratory style similar to what he had been creating with Miles Davis in the years prior. It’s atmospheric and spooky, space-age and peculiar, but very cool to lose oneself in.
(from Thrust, 1974)
With Head Hunters, Herbie Hancock essentially claimed the ‘70s funk fusion era as his own, delivering an album that was not only one of the decade’s most innovative, but one of its best-selling as well. And in the years that followed, he embraced funk in a major way. Take "Palm Grease," which opens Thrust. It’s pretty much all groove all the time, and it’s undeniable.
(from Mr. Hands, 1980)
The transition from the ‘70s to the ‘80s was an odd one for Herbie Hancock. Toward the end of the ‘70s, he had gone full bore into disco, which yielded a lot of perfectly listenable but unremarkable albums, some of which had lost the uniquely exploratory characteristics of his sound. But within a few years, he’d begin to experiment with electro and hip-hop, delivering the MTV hit "Rockit." Mr. Hands was an interesting in-between album, a more avant-garde blend of funk, smooth synths and spacey ambience. "Spiraling Prism" is sufficiently weirder but cooler than anything released for around three years on either side of it.
Other Recommended Shows This Week:
The Sleepwalkers & Cumbia Machin (August 17, Soda Bar): The Sleepwalkers might not be household names, but they’re one of the region’s longest running bands with more than 25 years of stage time together playing a hybrid of cumbia and rockabilly. They’ll be joined by solo artist Cumbia Machin, who likewise has a similarly unique take on cumbia, bolstered by various elements of electronic music.
Steve Earle and the Dukes (August 19, Belly Up Tavern): Steve Earle is an Americana legend. He’s been releasing music and performing for well over three decades, and somehow only continues to maintain a fiery and poignant songwriting sensibility over time.
Snail Mail (August 21, Music Box): Maryland singer/songwriter Lindsey Jordan released her debut album Snail Mail when she was just 19, though she began self-releasing music even earlier than that. So it’s remarkable how much emotional depth there is on Lush, one of 2018’s strongest debuts. As an artist who has made an impressive rise in a short amount of time, she’ll be one to watch in the coming years.