Herbie Hancock: Empyrean Isles, Maiden Voyage
Blue Note 4717291
Two of Herbie Hancock's seminal Blue Note albums are now featured on one Blu-Ray audio disc. Empyrean Isles, originally recorded in 1964 and Hancock’s fourth album for Blue Note, debuts two of his most treasured songs: "One Finger Snap" and "Cantaloupe Island." Maiden Voyage, arguably one of Hancock’s greatest albums from the ‘60s, is his fifth Blue Note album, recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in 1965. In 1999, Maiden Voyage was inducted into the Grammy® Hall of Fame.
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Review by Mark Werlin - October 23, 2015
The recent—and perhaps final—domestic HFPA Blu-Ray release of 1950s-1960s jazz recordings from UMe's extensive Blue Note Records tape archive is assembled from Herbie Hancock's best-known Blue Note sessions, Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage. The Blu-Ray disc also includes multiple alternate unreleased takes of three of the four compositions from Empyrean Isles. Empyrean Isles was remastered by Bernie Grundman, Maiden Voyage by Alan Yoshida, and the alternate takes by Robert Vosgien.
Herbie Hancock has enjoyed a long and productive musical career: as a pianist-composer leading his own sessions on Blue Note Records; as a member of the second Miles Davis quintet; as an innovator in jazz-rock fusion and jazz-hip-hop; and as a noted composer of film scores. A child prodigy, he began performing in his hometown of Chicago where he studied for a short time with the under-recognized virtuoso pianist Chris Anderson.
In an article posted on the blog jazz.com, jazz historian Ted Gioia wrote a succinct description of what he calls the 'Chicago school' of modern jazz piano:
"The essence of this music is a judicious balance between the linear momentum of bebop and the vertical conception of [Art] Tatum and [Earl] Hines. These Chicago keyboardists were two-handed players, with an ear for lush, resonant harmonies, and a knack for balancing the cerebral and emotional components in their music. When most players were emulating the spare left-hand work of Bud Powell, the Chicagoans had a more orchestral approach in mind."
By the time Herbie Hancock arrived in New York in 1960, he had mastered the sound of the Chicago school. After hearing him play with Donald Byrd's group, Alfred Lion signed Hancock to Blue Note Records, and by 1962 the 22 year-old pianist was leading sessions of his own compositions. Within a year, Miles Davis' teenage drum protégé Tony Williams encouraged Davis to hire Hancock in the critical dual role of pianist-composer.
The two Blue Note recordings that are collected on this disc have not been out of print since their initial release, due, in no small part, to the wide exposure Hancock received as a working member of the Miles Davis group. Hancock actively supported Davis' New Directions electric music, and had considerable success with his own jazz-funk LP Head Hunters and the mega-hit song and landmark MTV video "Rockit". There are very few pianists of Hancock's generation who have been as adept at balancing the demands of the muse against the realities of the record business. It is a curious coincidence that his immediate successors in the Miles Davis group, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, have also been very successful at negotiating the contradictory pulls of art and commerce.
Recorded at Van Gelder studios on June 17, 1964, Empyrean Isles was the fourth session in two years under Hancock's leadership, a quartet of trumpet, piano, bass and drums. Hancock has said that the absence of a saxophone necessitated reducing the head arrangements to very brief melodic statements. The personnel, Hancock's rhythm section partners from the Miles Davis Quintet, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, and trumpet player Freddie Hubbard, were well-equipped to proceed directly from the terse opening ensemble parts into extended solos.
The fast-tempo opener "One Finger Snap" starts off with a rapidly shifting melodic turn, then launches straight into an aggressive Hubbard solo over modal changes. "Oliloqui Valley" follows, a more introspective composition that allows space for Hancock to explore the light-touch balladic style he would develop further during his tenure in the Davis group. Hubbard plays long melodic lines with controlled vibrato and a clean, brassy tone.
In the early years of his performing career, Freddie Hubbard managed to avoid the catastrophic car accidents, health issues and substance abuse problems that prematurely took the lives of fellow players Clifford Brown, Booker Little, Kenny Dorham and Lee Morgan. Hubbard was the most accomplished (surviving) young trumpet player in the period 1961 to 1967. His clarity of tone, harmonic inventiveness and technical facility allowed him to keep one foot in the stream of post-bop as exemplified by the Herbie Hancock sessions, and the other in the New Thing currents of Coltrane ("Ascension"), Dolphy ("Out to Lunch") and Coleman ("Free Jazz").
"Cantaloupe Island" conforms to the well-tested template of "Watermelon Man" and "Blind Man, Blind Man" from Hancock's earlier Blue Note sessions. The two-handed piano approach lends rhythmic drive to a very simple, funky hard-bop composition. Hancock's proficiency at writing popular tunes would become a hallmark of his electric bands, but even at this early date it must have been a relief to Blue Note that his fourth LP for the label contained at least one track that would get radio and jukebox play.
The last and longest piece (14 minutes) does not appear among the alternate tracks because it was a spontaneous, unrehearsed take. "The Egg" opens with a rhythmically insistent (fast 6/4) piano riff based on a single chord that gradually devolves into substitutions on the original chord. Tony Williams churns a marching drum roll on his snare while Hubbard runs up and down the trumpet—scales, angular riffs, bebop lines, arpeggios, anything that comes to mind—trying vainly to find something interesting to contribute. At the five-minute point, Hancock must have indicated to the band that the first segment was over; Hubbard drops out, Williams switches to free-time hand percussion accents, Carter picks up his bow and plays a two-minute arco solo veiled under a layer of studio reverb. Hancock's rejoinder, an orchestral passage of chromatic lyricism, suggests the influence of Debussy and Gershwin. Hancock is moving in a direction that would be explored further by many pianists in the coming decades. By the eight-minute point, Williams and Carter begin keeping straight time and Hancock sketches out a fairly conventional improvisation, but ultimately, the music is too fragmentary to cohere. "The Egg" is described in the liner notes as unplanned, and while it may have felt liberating to the musicians at the time of the recording, spontaneous composition was not this band's métier—they were not 'outside' or free improv players.
The multiple alternate takes of the three shorter tracks are all interesting performances and a good use of the extra-long capacity of the Blu-Ray platform. Moreover, the physical tape on which those takes were recorded was probably untouched for 50 years, so the alternates sound better (from a purely aural perspective) than the master takes.
On March 11, 1965, Hancock returned to Van Gelder Studios with a quintet that included Hubbard, Carter, Williams and the recent ex-tenor sax player of the Miles Davis Quintet, George Coleman. The original compositions recorded that day have become jazz instrumental standards, a testimony to Herbie Hancock's growing proficiency as a composer, especially his ability to synthesize traditional and modernist elements in his writing.
The record is so well-known that it doesn't bear extensive descriptive notes; the pieces are played constantly on jazz radio stations and streamed on popular online services. Anyone likely to acquire this HFPA disc already has familiarity with the music.
What may be less well-known is the breadth of George Coleman's contributions to the continuity of jazz music. The Memphis native was a friend and frequent collaborator with the tragically short-lived trumpet player-composer Booker Little; preferred sideman in Max Roach's post-Clifford Brown bands; transitional tenor player in Miles Davis' group from 1962-63; collaborator with pianists Harold Mabern and Mal Waldron, and with drummer Elvin Jones following his departure from John Coltrane's group. As Blue Note, Prestige and Impulse dropped out of production, at a time when Hancock was making hit records and writing commercial film scores, George Coleman was following the path of greater resistance but lesser compromise. He recorded for the artist-owned Strata-East label and participated in the final, large-ensemble sessions of Charles Mingus. Recording work grew scarce in the 1980s but through persistence, Coleman reestablished himself in the early 1990s and has performed and recorded regularly since then. He is featured on the 2002 Chesky (RBCD) release Four Generations of Miles.
Coleman's playing on the Maiden Voyage session displays the confident artistry that distinguished his work alongside Miles Davis and Max Roach. Sounding unlike tenor players Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson or Sonny Rollins, Coleman leans closer to John Coltrane's tightly-focused tone, but he improvises from a more mainstream hard bop vocabulary. His solo on the title track is a compact, arch-shaped structure that begins with a quiet, slow legato introduction, moves into double-time arpeggio runs, and descends gracefully into a lyrical closing, all in 32 bars.
The album is a storehouse of musical pleasures. Listen to Freddie Hubbard's unexpected, growling multiphonics towards the end of his solo on "The Eye of the Hurricane", and Tony Williams' fleet brushwork on the ride cymbals throughout the session. The well-preserved tape mastered by Alan Yoshida sounds as good as his other transfers of Blue Note titles from the same 1964-65 period. RVG is often criticized for his approach to mic'ing the piano; the recorded piano sound on Maiden Voyage has more timbral detail than on Empyrean Isles, and is far more listenable than on any digital release of this title that I've heard.
Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage are bona fide jazz classics, more than deserving of a first-rate high-resolution transfer and presentation. But the same is true of dozens of other recordings in UMe's treasure-trove. The archival work has been done long ago by Michael Cuscuna and others, the master tapes located, and many of them transferred at high-res. Yet only the two Hancock sessions, the Miles Davis BN recordings and John Coltrane's Blue Train have been issued in the HFPA series. Others have been cut to second-rate vinyl (in the US; German pressings are reportedly of higher quality). Still other titles are being made available as high-res audio downloads, though the schedule of release has been unpredictable and the company's own web and social media sites failed to provide follow-up information after the initial press releases.
It is difficult to understand how a corporation with the vast financial resources of UMe can fail to deliver across multiple platforms one of the most significant and influential collections of American musical production.
Copyright © 2015 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net