Herbie Hancock and the Shock of the New

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

After the release of his 1970 Warner album, Mwandishi, Herbie Hancock was well on his way to introducing electronics to his brand of jazz. His top-flight team of improvisers made it that much easier to make the transition to fusion. Although naysayers were wrapped around Hancock’s funky hard bop from his Blue Note years, there was an audience to be had with this new free-form, electric jazz.

mwandishi_album_cover
Mwandishi, 1970

Miles Davis had already taken off with his 1969 Columbia release, Bitches Brew, plus a handful of live recordings which featured an even edgier take on his dark vision. Hancock’s work, by comparison, did not display the raw bravado of Davis’, its strength, rather, lied with its creator’s love affair with technology and the possibilities it could bring to his music.

Hancock’s work, by comparison, did not display the raw bravado of Davis’, its strength, rather, lied with its creator’s love affair with technology and the possibilities it could bring to his music.

This love affair becomes all the more evident in Hancock’s next Warner release, 1971’s Crossings. He pulls out all the stops here, adding an additional voice in Dr. Patrick Gleeson on Moog synthesizer. Here, Hancock crosses over to an avant-garde realm only visited briefly, and acoustically, on his already long resume. With banks of synthesizers, Hancock plugs in and creates a world wholly his own.

crossings_album_cover
Crossings, 1971

Although the Davis influences are impossible to deny, it’s Hancock’s own genius in multilayered arrangements that forges each piece into something unique. With track titles like “Quasar” and “Water Torture” it’s obvious this isn’t the laid back hard bop of years past — the future is now. The opener, “Sleeping Giant”, is just that — a giant. It’s a near 25-minute roller coaster of a suite incorporating Hancock’s new electronic instrumentation. Changing tempos, frenetic drumming, and the blips and chirps from synths soon show the way to a new approach that will eventually be more fully embraced on Hancock’s next release.

Experimentation abounds, much of Sextant sounds as if it was created live in a science lab setting.

Hancock’s debut on Columbia Records is an album that some may consider menacing to say the least. 1972’s Sextant is a full-on fusion album, quite literally equal parts man and machine. Experimentation abounds, much of Sextant sounds as if it was created live in a science lab setting. I like to call this sub-genre of music Sci-fi Jazz. Much of the album sounds like a funky, and oftentimes frightening, soundtrack to a science fiction journey. The opener, “Rain Dance”, sets the spacey mood with a flurry of electronic effects which carry throughout the piece and register as electronic water drops. Perhaps giving credence to the surrealistic album cover as a sort of alien dance ritual.

sextant_album_cover
Sextant, 1972

The second of the three tracks is “Hidden Shadows” and is indeed dark. And for all the percussion, synths and alien effects there is still the signature Hancock sound that musters familiarity right off. The keyboard chordings, the solos and the group harmonies — all transplanted from Hancock’s former life at Blue Note. There is a theme that continues to reign in the blowing and keyboard wizardry to keep “Hidden Shadows” as the most conservative and least likely to scare off the uninitiated.

The crowning achievement on this album is the final piece, “Hornets”. Abstract and nearly inaccessible, it begs further inspection. The redundant use of kazoo instills the frenzy of the track’s namesake. There are Fender Rhodes passages with free blowing over top in this 20-minute piece that sound reminiscent of Davis’ live outings from the same period. There was something undeniably in the water back then. Sometimes, I wish that certain something would make a return posthaste.

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