It would have been enough at the turn of the 21st century to say that Herbie Hancock ranks as one of the surviving jazz giants of the 20th century. But since then, his stature has grown to the point where he has transcended jazz per se, while still being closely identified with — and a continuing influence upon — jazz musicians.
Hancock initially became known primarily as a mainstream jazz pianist and composer — recording several distinguished albums for the quintessential jazz label Blue Note, playing in the second classic Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-1960s, and writing several tunes that have become jazz standards. His distinctive keyboard voicings are among the three seminal influences on most mainstream jazz pianists today (along with McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans), and he is now the only living member of that club.
All that would have been enough to enshrine him in any jazz hall of fame, but Hancock’s curiosity and restlessness — fueled by his wide musical tastes and studies in electrical engineering at Grinnell College — guaranteed that he would not stay put in a traditional jazz slot. Hancock’s music would carom and zigzag at will between acoustic jazz and various electric musics, be it jazz-funk, disco, techno-pop, hip-hop, acid jazz, Afro-pop and more. He could on occasion play classical music, too; after all, he started out playing Mozart with the Chicago Symphony as an 11-year-old, and late in life, he revived his classical chops in Ravel, Gershwin, and Vaughan Williams.
Close to his home near Beverly Hills, Hancock has been the creative chair for jazz for the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2010, programming its jazz series at Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. He has also served as chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz — recently renamed the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz — at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. He authored a candid memoir, Possibilities, the title of which succinctly sums up his life’s credo. At 81 years young, he still performs frequently, with upcoming dates at the Monterey Jazz Festival (Sept. 24), Oxbow RiverStage in Napa (Sept. 25), Hollywood Bowl (Sept. 26), and Disney Hall (Feb. 27, 2022).
When it comes to gathering a collection that can take in the vast reach of Herbie Hancock’s catalogue, the big question is: where do you start? All I can do here is hit upon some of the more influential or interesting items from the past and leave it to you to take it from there to explore the rest of a staggeringly multifaceted output. Note that nothing has come out lately — Hancock’s most recent album, The Imagine Project, was released in 2010 — and though he said two years ago that he was working on a new album, it has yet to emerge.
Maiden Voyage (Blue Note, 1965) — Hancock the composer figuratively sets sail in a five-song album that purports to be a portrait of the sea in its many moods — his La Mer, so to speak. The rhythm section (bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams) and tenor saxophonist George Coleman were his cohorts in the Miles Davis Quintet, and four-fifths of the personnel (with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet) would play in the highly influential V.S.O.P. group a dozen years down the road. The music is a somewhat gentler, less volatile breed of post-bop than much of what Hancock and company were playing with Miles. This would be the touchstone album for the jazz purists in Herbie’s following, and no less than three of the five compositions (“Maiden Voyage,” “The Eye of The Hurricane,” “Dolphin Dance”) became fixtures in his live repertoire for decades on.
Speak Like a Child (Blue Note, 1968) — After three years devoted to playing in the Miles Davis Quintet and doing session work in New York, Hancock reemerges as a leader with this lovely album of sophisticated arrangements for a sextet featuring flugelhorn, bass trombone, and alto flute. The sound is placed halfway between a small combo and a subdued big band, yet the harmonies are uniquely his own. The most memorable example is the haunting title track, with bassist Carter and drummer Mickey Roker setting a quiet bossa nova groove and the horns drifting on a two-chord riff over Hancock’s ruminating piano. Two more Hancock standards, “Toys” and “Goodbye to Childhood,” continue the pensive mood. Hancock, who is the record’s only soloist, can also burn with just the trio on “First Trip” and “The Sorcerer.”
The Warner Bros. Years (Rhino, 1969–1972) — Having been introduced to the electric piano by Miles, Hancock signed on with enthusiasm, taking a big leap into electric jazz with a trio of albums gathered together in a three-CD anthology. The first album, Fat Albert Rotunda, is an R&B-tinged project full of swaggering, fatback funk inspired by Bill Cosby’s cartoon characters, though “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” harkens back briefly to the Speak Like a Child horn sound. On the Mwandishi album — also the name of Hancock’s newly launched electric jazz-rock sextet — the tracks become fewer, much longer, freer, and more exploratory as Hancock starts to exploit electronic effects like stereo tremolo and Echoplex. With the addition of Patrick Gleeson’s galactic Moog synthesizer, Crossings takes the group’s experimental bent even further. The huge opening track, “Sleeping Giant,” launches with a long percussion jam that sounds like a clock shop gone berserk, and things get spacier with each passing selection. This is great, visionary music from the peak years of electric jazz, often ignored by the jazz intelligentsia but later a gold mine for sampling. An earlier two-CD set, Mwandishi: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (Warner Archives), also contains the three albums, but The Warner Bros. Years throws in the edited 45 RPM versions of some of the album tracks.
Head Hunters (Columbia, 1973) — Believing that his avant-garde sextet wasn’t hitting people where they lived, Hancock changed course and dived deep into jazz-funk, forming a hot, groove-conscious new band that bore the influence of Sly Stone (one track is even named “Sly”). The result was a blockbuster that temporarily became jazz’s all-time bestselling album (eventually overtaken, ironically, by his old boss Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue). Yet once you get past the catchy synth bass line and tune of the hit single “Chameleon,” listen further to the track and the searching experimental side of Hancock still comes through on the long jam. There is also a total Afro-funk reworking of his early hit “Watermelon Man,” another sign of a restless musician on the prowl. Hancock’s keyboard collection expands, now including a clavinet and ARP synthesizers as integral parts of his sound. Head Hunters managed the rare feat of having it both ways — pushing the artistic envelope and winning Hancock a mass audience for the first time.
Flood (Sony or Get On Down, 1975) — After Hancock joined Columbia, he also signed a dual contract with CBS/Sony that resulted in what amounts to an alternative catalogue of Hancock albums that were originally released only in Japan. There are experiments with new and old recording technologies, three direct-to-disc albums, solo electronics in real-time, Herbie’s only solo piano album, and live and studio sessions with the V.S.O.P. quintet and trio that were not deemed commercially viable in the U.S. market in the 1970s. Flood is one that should have come out here, the only live album that Hancock’s Headhunters band recorded in their peak years, direct from Tokyo. Defying expectations at the time, Hancock opened on acoustic piano with a broiling medley of “Maiden Voyage”/“Actual Proof” — and upon switching to electric keyboards, the jazz/funk heats up even more while still retaining enormously complex interplay between the six musicians. Hancock’s love of gadgetry reaches a new high with the metal-machine synth pink noise that dominates “Chameleon.” Flood had to wait until the 21st century to be released in the U.S. on CD and double vinyl and is available on streaming services.
Future Shock (Columbia, 1983) — Not for the first time, Hancock shocked the world with this radical departure from anything he’d done before, embracing ’80s techno sounds, turntable scratching, and electronic drums. With Bill Laswell of Material producing, arranging, and playing bass and DJ Grand Mixer D.ST operating the turntables, this brave new direction launched an international hit, “Rockit,” that got Herbie into rotation on MTV with a famously zany video populated by robots (which he also worked into his stage act). For all of its mechanized rhythms, the record is more than redeemed by its vitality, sense of humor, the injection of clavinet funk from the previous decade, and even (surprise) some acoustic jazz piano on “Auto Drive.” It revived Hancock’s reputation as an electronic music trendsetter after what I thought was a wrong turn into disco — and it’s estimated to be the No. 4 bestselling album by a jazz artist.
The New Standard (Verve, 1996) — At a certain point in the 1990s, Hancock all but stopped writing new material and concentrated upon making concept albums of other people’s songs or revisiting and revivifying his past. The New Standard was the initial concept project, treating music by Lennon-McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Babyface, Kurt Cobain, Prince, and others to rigorous post-bop workouts, sometimes with a li’l bit o’ soul. Playing only acoustic grand piano, Hancock leads a front line of saxophonist Michael Brecker and guitarist John Scofield and a rhythm section of Miles Davis alumni — bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and percussionist Don Alias. If the idea was to start a new library of standards to supplement the Great American Songbook in jazz circles, that may have been wishful thinking. But it resulted in some revitalized, reharmonized, sometimes completely recomposed improvisations — the essence of creative jazz.
Gershwin’s World (Verve, 1998) — Hancock writes in the booklet notes of this album, “I’m more interested in working toward making events, not just records” — and so, his record of Gershwin tunes aspired to be much more than your usual tribute album. He gathered a wide assemblage of all-star talent — Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Kathleen Battle, and longtime collaborators Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea. He put familiar Gershwin material, as well as some outliers like the slow movement of the Ravel Piano Concerto in G and Duke Ellington’s “Cotton Tail,” through all kinds of idioms, and somehow it comes out like a unified song cycle with a sophisticated, glossy jazz sensibility, aided by great sound engineering. There would be a few more such Hancock “events” down the road casting an ever wider stylistic net, but this one is the most satisfying.