Herbie Hancock: A Lifelong Musical Voyage

Herbie Hancock: A Lifelong Musical Voyage

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Born in 1940 to working-class parents in Chicago, piano prodigy Herbie Hancock performed Mozart with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11. His classical ear was turned toward jazz by the recordings of pianists like Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. But an even bigger influence was the popular vocal quartet The Hi-Lo’s, who sang standards in tight, jazzy chords with inventive voicings and plenty of syncopation against slick big-band orchestrations.

Self-taught until he was 20, Hancock eventually convinced Chicago-area pianist Chris Anderson to teach him jazz harmony and style. Soon he was jamming with Coleman Hawkins and Donald Byrd and making a name for himself as a session player both in Chicago and New York. Blue Note Records signed him, and his first solo album, Takin’ Off, impressed Miles Davis so much that he hired the young pianist to join his new quintet.

Although he stayed with Davis’ band until 1968, Hancock spent his free time absorbing the language of rock and pop music and using them to grow his career as a composer. He wrote film scores and advertising themes and, most famously, the music for Bill Cosby’s TV cartoon special Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert. In the early 1970s he began a lifelong experiment with electronic music, which would lead to his greatest commercial successes in the 1980s, starting with his single “Rockit” from the album Future Shock.

This 14-time Grammy Award winner and recipient of a Kennedy Center Honors award is still an active musician at age 81. His recent collaborations include the ambitious Imagine Project, which aimed to pull together top artists from all over the world to demonstrate “the central themes of peace and global responsibility” through music. A devoted educator, he holds faculty positions at Harvard, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and his own Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Herbie Hancock.

  1. Track: “Three Bags Full”
    Album: Takin’ Off
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1962

Like Miles Davis, Hancock was interested in hard bop, which often features trumpet and saxophone along with a rhythm section. For this debut record, the pianist used Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) and Dexter Gordon (tenor sax), along with Butch Warren on bass and Billy Higgins on drums.

“Three Bags Full,” composed by Hancock along with all the other tracks on the album, has the angular melody lines and nonchalant use of dissonance typical of hard bop. The “Three” in the title is reflected in the waltz time signature. Hancock’s solo, starting at 3:06, moves like a stream, constant and unhurried.


  1. Track: “Dolphin Dance”
    Album: Maiden Voyage
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1965

Like all Hancock’s albums up to this point, Maiden Voyage was produced by Blue Note founder Albert Lion and engineered by Rudy Van Gelder. The Lion/Van Gelder team helped to define the sound of hard bop, leaning toward the brighter frequencies in the drums and horns. This album is no exception. It’s interesting to listen specifically for the piano in the context of this approach; the instrument has a notably rounded, smooth sound.

“Dolphin Dance” is a Hancock-penned tune inspired by Count Basie’s “Silk Stockings.” Joining the pianist on this laid-back, lyrical standard are Hubbard (trumpet), George Coleman (tenor sax), Ron Carter (bass), and Tony Williams (drums).


  1. Track: “Ostinato (Suite for Angela)”
    Album: Mwandishi
    Label: Warner Bros.
    Year: 1971

In 1969, Hancock left Blue Note and signed with Warner Bros., making three records for them. The album’s title, Mwandishi, is Swahili for “composer,” and Hancock seems to yearn for recognition in that profession beyond what the jazz world could provide. The tracks here are closer to jazz fusion, bringing in pop influences, most obviously with Hancock’s use of a Fender Rhodes electric piano rather than an acoustic instrument.

That said, this is hardly a record aimed at the average pop consumer. “Ostinato (Suite for Angela)” is written in a time signature of 15/8, giving it a free jazz or atmospheric feel.


  1. Track: “Butterfly”
    Album: Thrust
    Label: Columbia
    Year: 1974

Thrust is one of over a dozen albums Hancock made during his long relationship with Columbia Records/CBS. His choice of David Rubinson as producer indicates his strong leaning toward commercial pop; Rubinson would go on to produce chart-toppers by the Pointer Sisters, Santana, and others. Hancock plays Fender Rhodes and synthesizers, and the group uses electric bass (Paul Jackson) rather than acoustic.

The sultry “Butterfly” was co-written by Hancock saxophonist and flutist Bernie Maupin, who plays on this album and had worked with Hancock on and off since his days with Miles Davis. This is the first of four Hancock recordings of this tune. Mike Clark’s drums blend seamlessly with Bill Summers’ percussion to punctuate the musical fabric.


  1. Track: “Whatcha Waiting For”
    Album: Herbie Hancock Trio
    Label: CBS/Sony
    Year: 1977

Hancock had not abandoned more traditional jazz sounds and styles. The Herbie Hancock Trio that this album is named after included his old Davis Quintet colleagues, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. It’s a top-notch be-bop record. Oddly, there’s also a 1982 album with the same name and personnel. Both were produced by Rubinson. The 1977 album was also released as a Carter album with the title Third Plane.

“Whatcha Waiting For” was written by Hancock and features his adventurous virtuosity – on an acoustic piano, this time.


  1. Track: “Tonight’s”
    Album: Magic Windows
    Label: Columbia
    Year: 1981

Magic Windows is one of several collaborations with R&B/soul/funk songwriter Jeffery E. Cohen. Although Rubinson is listed as producer, Cohen gets an associate producer credit; he also composed several of the songs, a clear indication that this won’t be a straight-up jazz album.

Cohen co-wrote the tune “Tonight’s the Night” with Hancock and Ray Parker, Jr. This funky soul number features the vocals of Vicki Randle. Hancock gave himself the challenge of playing bass, and his rhythmic foundation captures the genre perfectly.


  1. Track: “Junku”
    Album: Sound-System
    Label: Columbia
    Year: 1984

Hancock became a household name in America thanks to a series of three albums in the electro-funk genre that he made with his Rockit Band. The first was the platinum-selling Future Shock, which includes his mega-hit “Rockit. Sound-System is the second. Both of them won Grammy awards.

The song “Junku” was commissioned by the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Hancock first lays down layers of synthesizer, and then things take an interesting turn. Around the 1:00 mark you’ll hear some wonderful kalimba work by West African musician Foday Musa Suso, who also co-wrote the tune.


  1. Track: “Dis Is Da Drum”
    Album: Dis Is Da Drum
    Label: Mercury
    Year: 1994

In the early 1990s, Hancock left Columbia and signed with Mercury. With Dis Is Da Drum, he further explores the combination of jazz with blues-based popular genres, an intermixing that is sometimes referred to as acid jazz. There’s also a socio-political element to this album, particularly on the title track.

“Dis Is Da Drum” begins with a (clearly white) narrator, perhaps from a 1950s film clip, attempting to explain the meaning of African drumming in an overly simplistic and condescending tone. That sample is then pitted against complex West African percussive sounds and an electrofunk background.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Ice Boy Tell.

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