So it’s getting near showtime, and Herbie Hancock heads over to Miles Davis’ dressing room to pay his regards. This should be routine, right? They’re sharing the bill, and Herbie and Miles go way back. Herbie had spent five years at the piano in Miles’ band. Not just any band, mind you, but the great Miles Davis Quintet of the ’60s, the band with Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums and Wayne Shorter on sax. That was one of the defining lineups of the era, a musically osmotic wonder wherein, as Miles put it, the five of them “had seeped into each other’s heads.” And among jazz cats of the era, they made top dollar.
Miles hadn’t exactly discovered the guys for the group. They were all marked as up-and-comers; Herbie even had a bona fide hit when Mongo Santamaria covered his tune “Watermelon Man.” But Miles made them all stars, until, one-by-one, cats split off, beginning with Herbie. That was about the time Miles went electric and heralded the jazz fusion era. In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson … those records reflected the sea change. And except for Ron, the other cats from the great group plugged in too, as leaders of their own outfits.
So there’d be plenty to chat about, right? But not tonight. Herbie gets the word that Miles’ dressing room is for current band members only. Which is a lame excuse, and Miles knows it, and Herbie knows it. The problem is that on this tour, Miles, who started this fusion thing, is the opening act. And the top-billing, thanks to a funky little ditty titled “Chameleon” and the album Head Hunters, goes to Herbie. This is hell for Miles. Head Hunters had hit gold far faster than his era-defining Bitches Brew — and after 12 years Head Hunters would be the first jazz disc to go platinum.
Herbie Hancock: The Complete Columbia Album Collection 1972-1988 is the whirlwind musical story of how Herbie Hancock hit that groove and rode it, recording prolifically, for a decade and a half, churning out an average of two discs per year, and an amazing four discs in 1977 alone. It comprises 34 CDs of material, more than half of his career discography.
The series picks up with Sextant, the last and best disc of the post-Miles Herbie Hancock Sextet, a group that soloed expansively against a broad acoustic-electronic sonic canvas. You could write a book about the nexus of musical, commercial, social and personal factors that shaped what happened next (and if the treatment in the 200-page box set book isn’t enough, there’s Head Hunters: The Making of Jazz’s First Platinum Album by Steven F. Pond).
To run down some of what what was going on at the time: Herbie had opened a series of shows with the Pointer Sisters, and clearly hungered for that level of success. His practice of Buddhism suggested a simpler sound. The big, expensive sextet was a money-loser. And when he reconfigured to a smaller group, something amazing happened. His new funkier bass (Paul Jackson) and drums (studio vet Harvey Mason) hit a groove; they locked in with Hancock’s synthesized keyboards; his saxophonist Bennie Maupin (the only sextet holdover) brought the influences of post-bop and the Trane-esque avant-garde. Percussionist Bill Summers sweetened it all with Afro-Latin percussion. This was tight and focused where Crossings had been sprawling.
On the 15-minute jam, “Chameleon,” Maupin found an ear-worm of a melody from the inspiration of a Wattstax concert he’d been to in Los Angeles. And the jam held up when it was cut down to a radio-friendly single. With a little campaigning, it made it’s way onto to black college radio stations, Howard, in particular, and the new crossover era began. So did the controversy over whether the record-breaking sales were all about selling out. “Jazz Judas or not, he’s hot” read one headline from the era.
If anything, the mass of music in the new Columbia box argues that if Hancock was selling, he wanted to keep a lot of options on the store shelves.
Through records like Thrust, Flood, Man-Child and Secrets, the Head Hunters lineup evolved, augmented by horns, bringing in guitars (including Wah Wah Watson and a pre-Ghostbusters Ray Parker Jr.), replacing personnel and always tapping the latest in electronic keyboard sounds from Hancock. Herbie’s synthesizer get the kind of detailed discussion in the book usually reserved for sidemen.
The jazz-funk fusion eventually gave way to some outright vocal pop with an ear cocked to the dance floor in the ‘80s, with outings like Sunlight, with Hancock even handling some of his own vocals (thankfully with a Vocorder — a precursor to AutoTune). Yet, even these discs tend to include curveballs — an outright jam with Jaco Pastorius and Tony Williams, a Carlos Santana guitar solo on a dance number.
Then, in ’83, Hancock teamed up with producer Bill Laswell to strip his music down again and retool, this time bringing in a downtown New York nexus of hip-hop and avant gardists. The album Future Shock and the single “Rockit,” like Head Hunters and “Chameleon” a decade earlier, connected with a new audience and set a new, influential course for Hancock with turntable scratching, the latest drum machines and new synthesized sounds. Where “Chameleon” broke through on black college radio, “Rockit” had MTV. Collaborators like Bootsy Collins and Wayne Shorter came into (or rather “back to” for Shorter) the fold for the discs in Future Shock’s wake.
But there’s plenty more on the shelves at the Hancock Store: discs with the old Miles rhythm section, solo piano, piano duets with Chick Corea, a quartet with (fusion-hating) Wynton Marsalis, a reunion with his sextet, duets with the African kora virtuoso Foday Musa Suso. V.S.O.P.: The Quintet, a Miles-less version of the ’60s quintet with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, accounts for a half-dozen discs. There is a great soundtrack for Death Wish and an Oscar-winner for Round Midnight.
Miles, by the way, got over his pique and made up with Herbie, as he tells it in his autobiography.
Were he around he’d likely be taking note that his Columbia box set of a couple years back was 70 CDs plus a DVD.
Take that, Mr. Headliner.