The truth, writes Jon Opstad, is that I can’t do without Herbie Hancock’s entire discography. In bringing this list down to just ten recordings some very specific parameters were called for. So I’ve focussed on Herbie Hancock’s electric music of the 1970s, and more specifically on his greatest solos from that period, predominantly on the Fender Rhodes electric piano (there are two acoustic piano solos thrown in). I’ve also limited myself to no more than one track from each album (hence no “Chameleon” or “Hang Up Your Hang Ups”).
Even with these parameters, bringing this list down to ten was a tough challenge (*). Also, anyone new to this period of Herbie Hancock’s music should – I would say – begin by listening to the whole of the Head Hunters album – a true masterpiece.
While this list focuses on Hancock’s brilliance as a soloist in the context of his electric music of the 70s, another side to this music was his pioneering genius in orchestrating for analogue synthesisers.
This is an area I have been exploring recently by recreating his classic composition “Spiraling Prism” (from the album Mr Hands) in a YouTube video, using the original models of analogue synthesiser and featuring the track’s original bass player, Byron Miller, alongside keyboardist Tom O’Grady and drummer Mark Mondesir. LINK BELOW.
NOTE: Apart from as stated on Tracks 1, 4 and 8, all other tracks/albums have Herbie Hancock as leader
1. “Red Clay” (from Freddie Hubbard – Red Clay, 1970)
One of the earliest and most straight-ahead sessions for Creed Taylor’s CTI label, and one of the earliest examples of Hancock soloing on Fender Rhodes. Hubbard leads a top-flight quintet of Hancock, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Lenny White. Hancock’s electric piano solo (from 4’34 to 6’30) is particularly masterful, weaving some brilliant lines around the changes – the winding right hand line around 4’49 to 4’56 is particularly tasty.
2. “Sleeping Giant” (from Crossings, 1972)
Hancock’s first band under his own leadership, after leaving the Miles Davis Quintet and prior to the commercial success of Head Hunters in 1973, was the Mwandishi group, with which he made the most experimental music of his career. “Sleeping Giant” is a long suite from the middle of the group’s three albums and Hancock’s extended opening solo finds him combining effects-based work with the Echoplex tape delay unit with hard-hitting playing pushing the boundaries of harmony and rhythm.
3. “Sly” (from Head Hunters, 1973)
Head Hunters was a breakthrough album. A shift of direction after the exploratory Mwandishi group that found Hancock creating the first jazz album to sell a million copies. In terms of Hancock’s Rhodes solos on the album, “Sly” is one of the most intense, harmonically complex, most utterly musically inventive pieces of soloing on the instrument ever put to record – a height of technical skill and musicality that seems unlikely to ever be quite matched again. Hancock’s solo on the track begins at 5’25. This is a classic example of one of Hancock’s solos from this era that is built over a repeating bass groove outlining a single chordal area harmonically. Hancock creates such an elaborate and endlessly inventive development of harmony and rhythm over this in his playing that it almost seems superhuman for an improvisor to spontaneously create music of such complexity, ingenuity and compelling musicality. “Sly” is perhaps the greatest Herbie Hancock solo of this era – perhaps his greatest solo on the Rhodes at all. No one else has ever played quite like this.
- “Cloud Cream” (from Joe Farrell – Penny Arcade, 1973)
Alongside Hancock’s incredible productivity as a recording artist in his own right in this period he still found time to make occasional appearances as a sideman on recordings by others. This Joe Farrell session was recorded at a similar time to Head Hunters (around a month later), and finds Hancock on acoustic piano in a contrasting, less ‘produced’, looser setting. The highlight is this absolutely killer solo from Hancock – a torrent of musical brilliance over the Latin pulse set up by bassist Herb Bushler, drummer Steve Gadd and percussionist Don Alias.
5. “Actual Proof” (from Flood, 1975)
Hancock was signed to the Columbia label from 1973 to 1988, and for much of this period his releases benefitted from an arrangement whereby, alongside the main schedule of studio releases, an agreement with the Japanese arm of the label allowed additional Japan-only releases for the burgeoning Japanese market, including the live Headhunters album Flood – an album deeply treasured by fans of this period of Hancock’s music. Strikingly for this period, Hancock opens the album on solo acoustic piano, with a stunning rendition of his classic 1965 composition “Maiden Voyage”. There is then a beautiful moment when the rest of the group joins on this piece before segueing into an incendiary performance of “Actual Proof”, from Thrust. Hancock chooses to remain on acoustic piano for this piece (he switches to Rhodes and synths for the rest of the album), and it is a striking example of how he sounds on the instrument compared with his 1960s recordings. There is an intensity here in the piano playing that seems to go beyond his 1960s playing, with some of the sheer fire that had been coming through in the Rhodes solos such as “Sly”. Bassist Paul Jackson and drummer Mike Clark show how adept they are at this setting. Both are masterful and Clark (a master funk drummer) shows a side to his playing that possibly has more in common with the drumming of Tony Williams in Miles Davis’s band than with the funk of Harvey Mason on Head Hunters, with driving hi hat pedal on every beat and a great dexterity around the kit. Jackson’s electric bass meanwhile sounds like a new step in the evolution of the instrument in the music. Overall, it’s hard to think of a track recorded before this that has sounded quite like this.
6. “Heartbeat” (from Man-Child, 1975)
While Thrust had continued the quintet formation of Head Hunters, the next studio album, Man-Child, expanded things considerably with a shifting personnel across the six tracks that added brass and guitars to the mix as well as brief cameos from guests Stevie Wonder and Wayne Shorter. The real killer solo on the album is on the closing track, “Heartbeat”, with the classic Headhunters rhythm-section of Paul Jackson, Mike Clark and Bill Summers.
7. “Come Running To Me” (from Sunlight, 1978)
Sunlight found Hancock in a transition stage between the earlier albums and the more disco-based music to follow, and experimenting with singing for the first time, through the Vocoder device. Although pop single “I Thought It Was You” is the best-known track from Sunlight, the real gem is the wonderful, impressionistic “Come Running To Me”, featuring one of Hancock’s great Rhodes solos of the era (beginning at 3’23) – one of the very best he put to record.
8. “Amoroso” (from Eddie Henderson – Mahal, 1978)
Eddie Henderson was the trumpeter in Hancock’s Mwandishi group, before going on to a recording career that largely mirrored Hancock’s in its progression through the 70s. Hancock appeared on Henderson’s 1978 album Mahal, along with many other Hancock-associated musicians of the period. The album opens with an up-tempo cover of Hancock’s classic “Butterfly” from Thrust, with Hancock soloing on Rhodes, but one of the real highlights is Bennie Maupin’s composition “Amoroso”. Hancock’s Rhodes solo begins at around 4’10 and it is one of the most perfectly formed of his short solos, beautifully winding its way around the song’s riff.
9. “Just Around The Corner” (from Mr. Hands, 1980)
Each track on Mr. Hands is recorded with a different line-up, reflecting the nature of much of the raw material being taken from earlier sessions for albums including Head Hunters and Sunlight. “Just Around The Corner” is the one group track that was recorded with an up-to-date line-up, with a similar group to Hancock’s (very different sounding) pop album Monster. Alphonse Mouzon in particular is on top form here – his four-on-the-floor beat and fast triplet tom fills underpinning a blistering Rhodes solo from Hancock (beginning at 2’56).
10. “Magic Number” (from Magic Windows, 1981)
With Mr. Hands being the exception, improvisation had begun to take a lesser role on Hancock’s electric albums by the early 80s, as he moved further in a commercial pop direction. The Rhodes itself became somewhat relegated in its use as well. But amongst Hancock’s pop-oriented albums of the late 70s and early 80s there is one surprise gem of an absolutely burning Rhodes solo. One last hurrah on the instrument that had been central to Hancock’s music for over a decade, but which he largely turned his back on for his recordings after this point. “Magic Number” is a vocal pop track, very much of its time, but at 3’30 it breaks down into an instrumental section with driving Latin percussion. At 4’38 begins one of Hancock’s fieriest Rhodes solos on record. Definitely going out with a bang!
Jon Opstad is a London-based composer working predominantly in film and television
(*) An extended list of SEVENTEEN solos with further detail on each is featured on Jon Opstad’s own website for those wishing to delve deeper. LINK HERE