Most of the improvisational performers who've risen to icon status during the jazz century have done so in part because their brilliant music was paired with a melodramatic personal life. Early death is a big plus in this regard: Such tragedies allow observers and critics to speculate about the great recordings the artist in question would have produced in his later years, had fate been less cruel. A lengthy addiction to heroin can be an asset as well, because it hints at the intense pain that no doubt underpins the music, and erratic behavior and/or mental illness comes in handy when trying to explain the type of genius that is beyond the comprehension of the average person. Finally, jazz heroes generally achieve a level of commercial success that falls short of mass popularity. In a world where many journalists and fans feel (although they'd never admit it) that they're smarter than those folks into less esoteric sounds, a Top 40 single is not necessarily a worthy accomplishment, but a reason for suspicion.
Factors like these go a long way toward explaining the strange reluctance among some jazz gurus to fully embrace Herbie Hancock. The 58-year-old keyboardist is certainly respected, as well he should be: His contributions to the Miles Davis-led quintet that also featured saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams had a huge impact on his peers during the '60s, and the echoes of his innovations continue to resound today. But, to put it bluntly, he doesn't fit the divinity blueprint established by the instrumental idols who preceded him. For one thing, this native of Chicago is still alive--and if he ever fiddled around with hypodermics, the experience didn't lead to the kind of dire consequences that dot the biographies of Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and so many others. Furthermore, he has regularly taken time off from making straight-ahead jazz to dabble in less tony arenas. Purists can forgive him for writing the scores of such films as 1966's Blow Up and 1986's Round Midnight (for which he earned an Oscar), but they have more difficulty justifying the flat-out bids for pop megasales that he churned out during the '70s and '80s. Hell, "Rockit," from the 1983 platinum platter Future Shock, was a smash due in large part to a clever video that earned saturation airings on (gasp!) MTV. What self-respecting jazz god would subject himself to that?
The up-and-down quality of Hancock's catalog plays a part in such figurative hall-of-fame voting as well: His dilettantism is as apt to produce tremendous gaffes like 1994's Dis Is da Drum, an embarrassing nod to hip-hop, as breakthroughs on par with Head Hunters, a 1973 jazz-rock benchmark. But his creative restlessness keeps him out of the ruts that trap all but a few veteran artists. For proof, look no further than the blitzkrieg of Hancock material that's arrived in stores over recent weeks: six releases on three different labels, including The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions, a generous boxed set filled with fine originals and intriguing alternate takes, and Gershwin's World, a much-ballyhooed new album on Verve cut with a roster of all-stars. Not all of the pieces are outstanding, and some are downright tepid, but the best of them show Hancock to be a musician with technical skills that are practically unparalleled. Too bad he doesn't always know what to do with them.
Early on, it was obvious that Hancock possessed uncommon gifts. As noted in the Bob Belden-penned essay that accompanies Sixties Sessions, young Herbie went to Iowa's Grinnell College as an engineering student but soon switched majors to music, and upon returning to Chicago in 1960, he quickly became a sought-after player. Two weeks spent accompanying saxophonist Coleman Hawkins cemented Hancock's abilities, in the mind of a club owner who subsequently mentioned him to trumpeter Donald Byrd after Byrd's regular piano player split town. One rehearsal later, Hancock was a permanent part of Byrd's band--and in two short years, he was in the studio with one of his own.
Following "Three Wishes," a song with Byrd that hadn't previously appeared on a CD, the boxed set's first disc dives into Hancock's initial recording session as the man in charge. His supporting cast for the project, issued in 1962 under the title Takin' Off, is formidable--trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Dexter Gordon, and drummer Billy Higgins are on hand--but Hancock shows no evidence of timidity. On "Empty Pockets," he graciously allows Hubbard and Gordon to hold the spotlight before stepping in with a solo that swings naturally, with nary a wasted note. But the selection that truly stands out today, as it did then, is "Watermelon Man," a canny track whose accessibility set the stage for things to come. The song is built upon Higgins's uncomplicated beat, a choppy but exceedingly catchy piano figure from Hancock, and a Hubbard-Gordon melodic hook that practically defines cool. "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," a Joe Zawinul tune that charted for Cannonball Adderly in 1967, achieves something like this combination--but "Watermelon Man" did so five years earlier.
"Blind Man, Blind Man," a song from 1963's My Point of View that appears on the second disc here, is a recapitulation of the "Watermelon Man" formula that doesn't taste as sweet as its model. But several other offerings--especially "King Cobra," built upon a spare but sophisticated harmonic progression--exhibit signs of tunesmithing growth that crop up frequently elsewhere in the box. Disc three, dominated by tunes from 1963's Inventions and Dimensions, contains both "Mimosa," an illustration of Hancock's flowering ambition, and "Cantaloupe Island," whose captivating keyboard vamp turned "Cantaloop," a 1994 concoction by Us3 that sports a sizable sample from it, into a boundary-crossing hit. The fourth CD, meanwhile, is highlighted by the delicate but fascinating "Theme From Blow Up" and "Maiden Voyage," a number from the 1965 album of the same name that shows how heavily Hancock and Davis were influencing each other then. "Voyage" is arguably Hancock's finest song.
These accomplishments are nearly matched by the mournful "Goodbye to Childhood," on disc five, and the entirety of the sixth CD, which incorporates songs made for 1969's The Prisoner, among Hancock's most underrated full-lengths. At the time, he was only months from diving headlong into the fusion revolution initiated by Davis with his own 1969 blockbuster, Bitches Brew, but the last songs he recorded for Blue Note are solidly in the jazz tradition. "He Who Lives in Fear" and "Promise of the Sun" take full advantage of a nine-piece lineup (they have a rich, Gil Evans-like air about them), and "The Prisoner" is a sometimes chaotic but always exciting salvo that's as risky as Hancock's ever gotten. The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions may not portray him as a consistent groundbreaker, but it demonstrates that he was much more than an able assistant to those who were.
Hancock was not part of the Bitches Brew team--keyboards on the package were played by Zawinul, Larry Young, and Chick Corea--but he briefly returned to the Davis fold for 1970's Jack Johnson, a soundtrack to an obscure film about the boxer of the same name that is an even more confident presentation of the experiments associated with its famous predecessor. Sextant, delivered two years later and recently reissued on Columbia/Legacy, reveals how much Hancock learned from this experience: It's a routinely dazzling three-song opus that serves as a reminder that fusion wasn't always an obscene word. Dr. Eddie Henderson's trumpet and flugelhorn playing can't help but recall Davis at times, but the LP's rhythmic stew--a melding of Billy Hart's drums, Buck Clarke's congas and bongos, Buster Williams's electric bass, and Dr. Patrick Gleeson's space-age synthesizers--are an expansion of Miles's achievements rather than a recapitulation of them. "Rain Dance," "Hidden Shadows," and "Hornets" are complex and enigmatic, flowing on torrents of dirty funk capable of leaving even George Clinton slack-jawed.
On Head Hunters, the 1973 successor to Sextant, Hancock used many of these elements, but he shaped them in an especially radio-friendly manner: A remake of "Watermelon Man" got oodles of airplay in the U.S. and abroad. This acclaim proved to be a bad thing for Hancock from an aesthetic standpoint, inspiring him to steadily whittle away the intricacies of his sound in favor of grooves that were far simpler for jazz novices to grasp. Thrust, a 1974 album that's also newly available on Columbia/Legacy, is the first step down this path, and even though it's far from an embarrassment--thanks to the presence of "Butterfly," a tune that still retains a touch of mystery--the emptiness of the funk that fills much of "Palm Grease," "Actual Proof," and "Spank-A-Lee" is an ominous harbinger. During them, Hancock lists toward fuzak, the fusion-Muzak mix that poisoned the jazz well in the second half of the '70s.
As Hancock's work became increasingly slick, the criticism aimed at him by jazzbos who felt he was wasting his talents on trivia intensified. Hancock's response was to make occasional forays into the music of his roots, and there's no denying that when he did so, his chops were as impressive as ever. Town Hall Concert, a 1985 concert recording recently re-released by Blue Note, finds him in the company of bassist Carter, trumpeter Hubbard, drummer Williams, saxophonist Joe Henderson, vibist Bobby Hutcherson, and flutist James Newton, and he more than carries his weight. His solo on a new version of "Cantaloupe Island" is brawny and confident, and his accompaniment of Hutcherson on "Little B's Poem" represents the pinnacle of taste.
Clearly, Hancock can still do what he's always done best--but he's after more than the approval of the jazz community. He'd like some fortune to go along with his fame, and his two most recent recordings suggest that he doesn't mind pursuing these goals on separate tracks. Return of the Headhunters, a 1998 disc on Hancock Records (a branch of Verve), is the cash-in venture of the pair--a blatant bid to capitalize on the rise of smooth jazz, a hot-selling albeit banal sub-genre that Hancock bears some responsibility for helping spawn. A reunion of original Headhunters Bernie Maupin, Bill Summers, Paul Jackson, and Mike Clark, Return is an example of Hancock at his laziest and most crass. He plays on only four of the disc's ten songs, all of which are weak imitations of music that wasn't that interesting in the first place. In the end, "Kwanzaa," which does a decent job of aping Weather Report, and the deliberate, moody "Premonition" are the only ditties worth hearing a second time--and the keyboardist on them isn't Hancock, but Billy Childs.
By contrast, Gershwin's World is out-and-out Grammy bait, in which Hancock takes a scholarly approach to celebrating the centennial of the late George Gershwin's birth. The disc is Hancock's attempt to ferret out the jazz in the Gershwin library while at the same time placing it in a continuum that includes W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington, and Maurice Ravel, all of whom are represented by compositions included here. But that's only the beginning: Hancock also wants to unmask the interrelationships of seemingly disparate musical forms, even as he displays his mastery over each of them. Hence, a primarily acoustic "It Ain't Necessarily So" is juxtaposed with a rendition of "The Man I Love" sung by Joni Mitchell; a run-through of "St. Louis Blues" starring Stevie Wonder on vocals and harmonica is paired with "Lullaby," a collaboration between Hancock and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra; and a light-fingered variation on "My Man's Gone Now" leads directly to "Prelude in C# Minor," a showcase for operatic soprano Kathleen Battle.
More often than not, these forays flow into each other far more logically than they should, and Hancock's playing is flawless no matter the setting. But when taken as a whole, Gershwin's World is the sort of CD that's easier to admire than enjoy. With the exception of "Cotton Tail," an Ellington number that provides a thrilling showcase for Hancock and saxophonist Shorter, the sheer joy of music comes in a distant second to a certain bookishness that's reminiscent of Wynton Marsalis. Hancock's trying for a masterpiece, and the effort shows.
Still, the album is noteworthy on at least one count: It's the most overt indication yet that Hancock actually cares about someday standing on the jazz pantheon beside the music's giants. If Gershwin's World doesn't put him there, maybe he should consider shooting some smack.