Vinyl Me, Please (VMP) is a company dedicated to creating singular listening experiences that arrive with records housed in beautifully-designed packaging, and extras that are carefully considered and make the entire offering sparkle. Where VMP really shines is with anthologies. The Story of Blue Note Records, The Women of Motown, The Story of Ghostly International, The Story of Stax Records, and The Story of Zamrock are all wonderful examples of the team’s curating expertise, their capacity to create compelling content, and VMP’s overall knowledge of each artist and their respective fan bases. Now they have announced VMP Anthology: The Story of Herbie Hancock, an exclusive vinyl box set celebrating the remarkable career of the pianist, keyboardist and composer. This box set experience takes listeners on a sequential journey, told across eight albums personally chosen by Herbie and paired with an exclusive podcast interview series in celebration of Herbie’s 80th birthday.
Produced by Cameron Schaefer of VMP and veteran music supervisor Karyn Rachtman, VMP Anthology: The Story of Herbie Hancock is a two-piece box set designed by Clay Conder, with liner notes from award-winning author and music curator Marcus J. Moore. The eight albums come on 180-gram audiophile black vinyl with audio sourced from the original analog tapes from the vaults of Universal Music Enterprises and Sony Legacy. All albums are housed in heavyweight, tip-on style jackets that are closely matched to the original art. The set includes: Takin’ Off (1962); Maiden Voyage (1965); Head Hunters (1973); The V.S.O.P. Quintet: Live Under the Sky (1979); The Piano (1979); Future Shock (1983); 1+1 (1997); and The River (2007).
We had the opportunity to speak with Andrew Winistorfer, VMP’s Classics and Country Director, about how the project came about, how the albums were selected, how Herbie became involved, and what lies ahead for VMP – a company that is redefining how musical journeys can be followed, and the ways in which enduring musical legacies can be appreciated in full.
Ray Chelstowski: What prompted you to undertake this particular project now?
Andrew Winistorfer: The Grateful Dead anthology (The Story of the Grateful Dead) was the first we did that was artist-specific. When we were first conceptualizing the idea of creating box sets, the first four or five were label-specific. But we knew that we wanted focus on artists, and before we settled on doing the Grateful Dead, Herbie Hancock was a name that had come up. Then our CEO received a random e-mail from Karyn Rachtman, a woman who used to work for Herbie, and thought we should talk to him. So we sent a cold e-mail to his manager saying that we would love to do this anthology. They were very interested in doing this to help celebrate his 80th birthday, which was also his 60th anniversary of being a professional musician. Knowing Herbie, I think he loved the symmetry of 80 and 60 and having the anniversary be the year 2020 (when we initially announced the box set).
RC: Given the depth of Herbie’s catalog, how did you decide upon these particular albums?
AW: The initial concept that we pitched Herbie was narrowed down to eight albums. Herbie said, “I love this concept,” because he was really excited about the idea of how you pick only eight and still represent the arc of your career. All eight of these albums were picked personally by Herbie and it was really interesting for us to see what he would come back with and then try to determine why he picked them.
RC: What album did you want to include that just missed the cut?
AW: When we were told to figure out eight albums to pitch Herbie Hancock I actually discovered an early 1990s album of his called Dis is da Drum which is this weird sort of trip hop album. I was really excited about it because it had never been released before on vinyl. Ultimately it wasn’t included. The one that Herbie wrestled with was Live Under The Sky, which he ultimately re-sequenced for our box. It’s not the same track listing as the original release. He just thinks that it flows better as a live experience this way. We actually joked around about going to Ron Carter and asking him and others to create their ideal version of Live Under The Sky – to get three or four completely different sequences. In the end, we have relationships with all of the labels he’s worked with, so any album he had ever done was at his disposal.
RC: Were the masters all intact?
AW: I think that his labels realized pretty early on that he was special, so there weren’t any problems with the masters. But it did take a lot of work to get the test pressings right on The Piano and on 1+1 because both of those albums are very quiet and have a lot of empty space. On 1+1 we had to do twenty test pressings and 12 or 13 on The Piano. You would hear any little amount of scratching much more than on something like Head Hunters. It wasn’t so much that the masters were a problem as it was trying to make them as quiet as humanly possible.
RC: Were the records remastered as a set in mind or was each record addressed on its own?
AW: We use one mastering engineer, Bernie Grundman, with all of these box sets so you get their vision as to how this all should sound. But the big thing for us with anthologies is trying to get as much historical accuracy as possible. So with something like Taking Off we try to deliver you the perfect listening experience, as if everything had gone exactly right in 1961, like if it had actually been able to be on 180-gram vinyl and had been mastered by a legend like Bernie Grundman. What would it have sounded like?
RC: The LPs in this box set are all basic black. Did you consider any colored vinyl versions given the vibrant art design of albums like Head Hunters?
AW: We did a Blue Note box as our first anthology. If you’re going to try to make these as historically accurate as possible then to do a tie dye vinyl version of Taking Off just might make people think that you’re not as serious as you should be on the audiophile end of everything. That’s why, for example, with our classics subscription you have triple-A Quality Record Pressing black vinyl. We want to ensure that people know that these will sound as good as they will ever sound. With Herbie it’s all about a serious listening experience.
RC: How did you decide upon the writer Touré to host the podcasts? Who selected the subject matter?
AW: That was actually Herbie. Herbie asked for him by name. I think he had been interviewed by Touré at some point in his career and had listened to his podcast as well. The rough outline with the podcast is always to tell the story of each record, like if you were listening to a director’s commentary on a DVD. With this one we wanted Herbie to talk about his memories and then get all of these other artists who have been involved or inspired by him to talk about individual albums.
RC: With over fifty albums in his catalog, do you think that there is another Hancock anthology waiting to be made?
AW: A few of us have given a lot of thought to what our alternative anthology to this would look like. I am a big fan of his late 1970s and early 1980s pop jazz. I think Monster is a really funky fun album. There are a lot of ways we could approach this. Maybe for his 85th birthday and his 65th anniversary could come back and do another one.
RC: How do you think this anthology honors Herbie Hancock’s legacy?
AW: I think it really captures his life as an artist and maybe the central challenge for any vinyl artist over the course of 60 years [is their] willingness to evolve. Herbie Hancock, maybe more than any of his contemporaries, was never content to simply play the hits. He probably took that from Miles. But Herbie has done it longer. When you look at the box set we go from fairly traditional jazz to wild jazz funk to fusion, to turntable scratching, and then you end up at River, this traditional piano bar-type album. The only thing that links them together is the name on the record. That’s really inspiring. He never stopped, but always looked to what’s next.
Apparently Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock used to get into fights over who got the newest synthesizers first. [Herbie] would go to Korg when they had a new model and say, “I’m flying to your offices and giving you the money in cash,” so that Stevie couldn’t buy it out from under him and have it shipped to his home in LA. That kind of evolution and commitment to the moment is told over the course of these eight albums.
RC: What’s next that you are most excited about?
AW: [Our] 10th anthology will be folk-centered. Then the eleventh will be Philadelphia International Records because they turn 50 this year. We’re really excited about that one and are working closely with [producers] Gamble and Huff on everything down to the artwork. They are involved with the curation and have been approving everything along the way. That one should arrive in September or October. And we have another jazz set that celebrates another label’s anniversary and that should be ready in time for the holidays.
For more on Herbie Hancock, please read Anne E. Johnson’s article in Copper Issue 129.