Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Cultured Barrister: Herbie Hancock as a Primer to Modern Jazz

The Cultured Barrister is a SCOV Law Column that is an ongoing miscellany cataloging the matters that young attorneys are likely to be confronting as they begin their professional ascent.  The CB is meant to begin a conversation and rarely will claim the final word.  If you agree or disagree, the Cultured Barrister and the other readers of this blog want to hear from you.

You are a young associate.  You are trying to impress your partner.  She comes in from a night at the Hopkins Center and starts in about the Chucho Valdes show.  After a ten minute description where your comments are politely ignored or shut down, you understand the following:

(1)  Chucho appears to be a Cuban Jazz Musician but not of the Ricky Ricardo school of Babalu.

(2)  His style is elegant and rhythmic, but you are not clear whether he plays the piano or congas.  You are 93% sure it is the piano.

(3)  He quotes from several other musicians.  This is apparently a good thing and something that jazz players do without forming big air quotes during the performance.

(4)  No singing was done at this show.

(5)  You may have dropped a few notches on that partnership track.

Jazz for many who come to the legal profession straight out of law school and undergrad usually means that Kind of Blue CD that you picked up because Rolling Stone mentioned it, or the Smooth Jazz Hits you got from your mom but have used to seduce girls.  It is the music you play when you really want to chill out and are a little sick of listening to Phish bootlegs (again).  Yet, Jazz, like classical music (orchestra, chamber, and opera), is one of those art forms that brings class and credibility merely by its mention and appreciation.  It is a common language for which many in the legal profession share an interest, and it is an art form that actually becomes more interesting once you understand the basic structures, formats, and conventions.  The daunting task for the newbie is always the sheer volume of available recordings, styles, and forms that Jazz has.  Where, says the slack-jawed associate looking to impress her partner, do I begin?

This is an age-old question for any jazz fan.  Some will start you at the beginning with Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and the other "Hot Jazz" pioneers, who basically took stolid white music, freed it up, emphasized solos within the song, and built a new art form.  This music, though, can feel dated and the recordings are often of varying quality from poor to worse.  This is not to say that such music is a dead-end or something to ignore.  It is just not the place to begin.  We will come back to it with another entry.

Let me suggest that the best way to get into Jazz is to start with the musician you probably already know.  If you are like the CB, your early memories probably contain the image of a hip dude playing a CMI electronic keyboard on Sesame Street with a computer!  A real, freakin' computer.  This was around the same time that this same player and Grand Mixer DXT had a hit with a song that involved the best of both MTV and scratching.  For its day, there were no higher peaks.

I am talking about Herbie Hancock, who despite some questionable fashion choices remains one of the coolest people on planet earth.  Herbie has also been recording, playing, or performing as a professional for over 50 years.  His legacy stretches back to the hey-day of Blue note records through the modal jazz of the late 60s Miles Davis group to the funky jazz fusion of the 1970s to the neo-bop revival of the 1980s and into the rebirth of hard-bop in the 1990s and 2000s.  Along the way, Herbie has had time for side projects, supergroups, and pop forays.  Throughout it all Herbie has been on the forefront crafting not only music that is indicative of its time but the best of it.  To understand Herbie's sound on any given album is to understand where jazz was at any given time.

In 1960, Herbie was studying engineering at Grinell University when his piano playing caught the ear of Donald Byrd.  Byrd is largely forgotten today, but at the time, he was a popular trumpeter recording for Blue Note records in New York.  (In jazz, labels matter.  There is a Blue Note sound that Alfred Lion, its owner created and insisted upon it from his artists.  Within a few notes, you always know if the label is blue.)  Herbie began recording with Byrd, and by 1962, he released his first album, Takin' Off, which had an original composition Watermelon Man that Mongo Santamaria quickly covered and turned into a hit.  From the start, Herbie's main elements that you find in his recordings were in place.  Takin' Off is accessible, but it is by no means lazy or an easy record.  It crackles with energy, ideas, and most important of all, melodies.  It is an accomplished work that embodies the ideas of the form.  In this case, it is classic hard bop stuff--piano, drums, bass, trumpet, and a tenor saxaphone.  The musicians supporting Herbie, particularly Freddie Hubbard are impeccable and rise to the challenge that the 22-year old is putting to them.

From 1963 to 1968, Herbie went on to record six more albums for Blue Note.  These albums show off more of the Blue Note house sound, featuring the usual suspects from Donald Byrd to Ron Carter to  Tony Williams who all pop up regularly along side label legends like Freddie Hubbard and Hank Mobley.  Each of these albums illustrate one or more aspects of the hard-bop sound.  There is a melody in each song, strong technical playing, soulful improvisation, tight interplay between the small group, and energy.  These albums are available in an out-of-print box set that is worth every penny you will have to pay for it.

While Herbie was putting out these tight sets for Blue Note, he, like many artists, had a day-job.  Only in Herbie's case, his day job was to be part of Miles Davis' second great quintet with Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams.  This group picked up in 1963 where Kind of Blue left off, pushing away from traditional chord changes into complex modal arrangements and introducing an orchestral sound.  On albums like Miles Smiles (1966), Sorcerer (1967), Nefertiti (1967), Miles in the Sky (1968), and Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968).

The group went from sounding like this to making albums that sounded like this.

If you are listening to the links, you should hear a progression.  There is a comfortable sound in a piece like Watermelon Man.  It has a tune and melody.  It gets complex, but it comes back to the original melody.  It bounces.  It is light and fun.  Footprints from Miles Smiles is different.  The window is cracked and the familiar has some dissonance creeping into the picture.  Notes are not going where you expect them to go.  At first listen, it sounds like the band did not rehearse and is awkwardly feeling their way through the song.  A second listen will show that something more is happening.  By the time you get to Petits Machins from Filles de Kilimanjaro.  The new story is  clear.  We are entering into an alien world.  The music is disquieting, challenging.  It does not fall into place or create an easy sonic background.  Electronic keyboards rumble beneath a bass and drum that seem to be racing to the next point in spurts and leaps.  The horn comes sideways into the piece, to comment and punctuate the proceeding.  The whole experience seems random, dense, and purposeful in a way that only math might be able to explain.  Yet, the more you listen, the more predictable it gets.  This is music that grows on you.  It never stops challenging you, but it gets more approachable, and in return, you grow more deft to handle and process the seemingly random notes and progressions within the song.

Nothing to this point, however, could prepare you for the next stage of Herbie's career.  Along with Miles, Herbie became fascinated with electronics and electrical instruments.  At the end of the sixties the jazz cats had fallen off the popular music pedestal.  Rock ruled, and the Miles' group wanted to be a part of it.  The result was a seminal album Bitches' Brew.  This is the fusion cannon, the bop gun that Miles and Herbie fired across the bow of jazz.  Knocking critics, listeners, and jazz fans for a loop.  Even today, the album has the capacity to amaze, confuse, frustrate, and awe.  Listening to it alone and at night is an invitation to a Dark Night of the Soul as the sounds generate complex feelings in the listener.  This is not an album for kids and Eddie Money fans need not apply.

By the time of Bitches' Brew, Herbie was heading out on his own again, taking the lessons of his Miles Davis days and applying them to his preferences.   One of the first albums that Herbie made during this time was a one-off lark for his friend Bill Cosby who was developing a cartoon series around his Fat Albert character.  The result is Fat Albert Rotunda a muscular R&B-influenced album that spawned two gems, Wiggle-Waggle and Tell Me a Bedtime Story.  Neither these nor the remaining pieces on this album are radical departures from earlier jazz scores, and they are closer to Herbie's Blue Note work than what he was doing with Miles.  Yet, the simplicity and the richness of these songs (the latter of which has become a standard for musicians) beguile.  It is interesting to think that at the same time Vince Guaraldi was doing the same thing, albeit with a more west coast/ bossa nova feel for the Peanuts Cartoons.  Yes, once upon a time, cartoons were our best delivery systems for original jazz scores, and millions of children followed melancholy children who pondered life to a 3/4 waltz rhythm.

After Fat Albert, Herbie went back into the world of fusion.  The next three albums Mwandishi (1970), Crossings (1972), and Sextant (1973) all plow the fusion fields with differing results.  More importantly, these albums built toward a new group and sound that would launch Herbie Hancock into wide popularity.

If you had a friend that smoked something other than cigarettes in college, chances are that she owned a copy of Headhunters.  This could also be a good litmus test to see what kind of social life your parents enjoyed in the early 1970s.  Headhunters is a funky album.  It takes the fusion sound of Miles Davis and slows it down.  The bass comes to the forefront, and the electronic keyboards get a little slinkier.  Here is the album's update on Watermelon Man.

In many ways, the success of Headhunters set the tone for the rest of the 1970s as Herbie put out a series of funky albums that played with rhythm, electronics, chanting, and rock.  As an example, Secrets (1976) is a good sample of what works and does not about this exploration.

What did not work, at least for jazz fans, was the creeping progression away from traditional jazz forms that these albums embodied.  To stay relevant, Jazz, apparently, had to stop being jazz and just become a sophisticated form of jam music.  In response a growing contingent of young and old jazz musicians started to eschew fusion for hard bop sounds, exploring the areas left over when Miles Davis and John Coltrane abandoned the field for something free.

Naturally, Herbie was front and center in this neo-traditionalist movement.  Beginning in 1976, Herbie, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams began performing as V.S.O.P.  These albums harken back to each player's earlier work.  They are acoustic concerts, and they were very well-received.

From this point forward, Herbie's output takes on the Jeckyll and Hyde nature of Jazz in the 1980s and 1990s.  For every V.S.O.P. recording or brilliant piano workout there were experiments or commercial ventures like Future Shock (home of the aforementioned Rockit) and keyboard guitars.

After 1980, whether you enjoy any Herbie Hancock album depends in large part on what kind of music you like.  Do you like slow, thoughtful piano pieces that are either solo or accompanied by a traditional horn and rhythm section?  Then the Piano (1979), The New Standard (1995), 1 + 1 (1997), and Gershwin's World (1998) are for you.  Do you thrill to the funk and the electronic bogaloo?  then Mr. Hands (1980), Future Shock (1983), Sound System (1984), Perfect Machine (1988), and Future2Future (2001) are the ticket.  Do you listen to jazz and think, "you know what this is missing?  A middle of the road rocker, crooning out some lyrics"?  While you may be beyond hope, you at least can take comfort in three later career records, Possibilities (2005), River: the Joni Letters (2007), and the Imagine Project (2010).  Out of these, The New Standard and River really shine as better than your average bear albums.  They sum up what Herbie and his pals do best: make jazz that is challenging and accessible while looking like the coolest kids at the party.

—the Cultured Barrister


  1. So the CB recommends starting one's jazz education with Herbie Hancock -- and not a bad choice. There is a sub-text, however, though an unacknowledged one: if you really want to "get into" jazz by exploring it's development from bop to free to fusion and beyond, there may be no better place to start (and pitch a tent for a long stay) than the Miles Davis catalog. For my LCB money, Miles offers more and never leaves you with the impression that he is following a trend set by someone else.

  2. The Cultured BarristerNovember 4, 2010 at 2:25 PM

    Dearest Kevin, I think you spent way too much time at the Seven Days election chat room and are now delirious from the sleep deprivation. Starting a jazz collection with Miles, especially second quintet Miles is a recipe for a dead end. Miles, like a lot of geniuses, is a taste best enjoyed with some context. Alone he sounds like a squeaky horn that fronting for the world's most whacked out rhythm section. Herbie is always accessible and a better starting point. You can get into a Herbie Hancock album whether you like the particular type of jazz he is playing or not. Herbie is the gateway. Who cares who did it first. Herbie did it just as well and usually in a way that is not off putting. I would rather explain what is going on in Headhunters than to try to explain what Miles is up to in his Tribute to Jack Johnson.

    I think Miles deserves his own category and disambiguation. You up to the challenge?

  3. Of course there's nothing wrong with taking the partner's suggestion here and getting involved with the Buena Vista Social Club as a gateway to jazz. There's something to be said for starting with music that not only reveals the roots but is also just downright fun (and funky).

  4. Dear CB -- Do not get me wrong: Herbie is excellent, certainly not second-rate. Perhaps it's true that he's more accessible -- though accessibility would lead one to suggest learning about 60s rock by sampling the Ohio Express rather than the Beatles, and so I hesitate to treat it as a useful standard. I assumed that our mythical young lawyer had some already existing musical sophistication and therefore could handle some complexity. Miles steered the ship of jazz from 1950 until his untimely death. So why not start there, just as one would start with the Beatles for an appreciation of a different genre? My own first jazz album was "Kind of Blue" -- not a bad place to begin one's branching out into jazz from wherever one happens to be on the musical tree. And consider this practical matter. If you respond to your partner with something like, "Isn't Herbie's keyboard work in 'Crossings' exquisite?" one risks a follow-up question about whether you prefer Bill Evans to Herbie or not. Now you're stuck. Responding with some comment about "Kind of Blue" (Bill Evans playing behind Miles, by the way), carries less risk because it suggests only a familiarity with the one jazz album everyone is expected to know.

  5. The Cultured BarristerNovember 5, 2010 at 3:37 PM

    Kevin, I think the flaw in your point is the typical canonical construction that many critics impose on listeners. Simply because Miles did it first does not make him the best. In fact, a lot of his work is off-putting and will turn off a neophyte to exploring more. It is because of Miles' explorations and determination to be on the forefront that he is the wrong person to start with for a new jazz collection. Sure Kind of Blue is seminal and great because it is both a complex, rich album and a great listen. But what should our hypothetical neophyte (HN) buy next? Miles Smiles? Quiet Nights? Sketches of Spain? ESP? On the Corner? The Man with the Horn? (Shudder) Each of these albums has serious complexities and/or flaws that may reward a jazz fan but will put-off the neophyte. The secret to enjoying jazz is that the more you listen, the more you can appreciate. Unlike pop music, where a song or singer eventually wears out the welcome (and afterall, isn't this a large part of why top 40 and classic rock radio stinks? It's why people will get viscerally angry when Hotel California comes on for the billionth time in their lives. Hell is an elevator playing adult contemporary hits for eternity), jazz rewards multiple listening and prolonged attention to several different musicians. We listen to Kind of Blue over and over again because each new artist or album we hear informs how we hear Kind of Blue the next time and vice versa. But like some classical music pieces, the enjoyment in other, more complex albums, comes from the context and without the context, the piece is confusing and disquieting to the casual listener or the HN.

    That is what makes Herbie so unique. He touches all of these areas as Miles and others, but he does so in a way that retains a unique accessibility. His stuff stays sweet and melodic. He launches into space, but he always leaves a vapor trail for us to follow. (He also goes to more places than Miles who never circled back on himself but kept pushing out.)

    It is interesting that you mention the Beatles because they, like Dylan, like Miles, like John Coltrane, are giants in their field who are not great artists with which to start your collection. Sure one or two albums are wonderful and are worth owning. By all means, get Sgt. Pepper's or Revolver; buy Bringing It All Back Home or the Times They Are a Changing ; invest in Kind of Blue or Birth of the Cool; and purchase Blue Train or My Favorite Things, but these icons usually warrant just a taste. You will not really know if you like folk or folk rock by listening to Dylan, just as you will not get an accurate sense of jazz outside of John Coltrane if you elect to explore the genre through his work.

    Again, here is where Herbie is good resource, his albums reflect the sound in less idiosyncratic ways. If you like Takin' Off, you will certainly like every other Blue Note album you can find. If you like Headhunters, then sink your earnings into Weather Report and CTI's catalog because you need look no further. It is a given.

    Only after you educate yourself on your favored area or find that you enjoy a number of areas should you circle back to the giants like Miles. Then their recordings make sense and their beauty becomes clear. Of course such a method is an ideal and in practice there will be a lot of mixing, but strangers in strange lands need signposts, and Herbie's are clearer than Miles'.
    I would note that a lot of people are put off by Miles' trumpet, which is the musical equivalent of Dylan's nasally voice. It is an acquired taste that can be all too much when you are trying to keep up with the music. I much prefer Clifford Brown and Dizzy's horns to Miles' muted trumpet. The later is a single sound that I have learned to enjoy, but it was not an instant attraction.