In honor of jazz icon Herbie Hancock‘s birthday today, we wanted to take a look at some of the career high points from this living legend. One of the most expressive pianists of the last hundred years, Hancock’s playing and production has been heard on hundreds of albums created over fifty years. Some of them, including his work with Miles Davis and his own band The Headhunters, are considered masterpieces of the form.
Rather than attempt to sum up the career of one of the most acclaimed musical forces of modern times in words, we’ll let his music do the talking. Below you’ll find ten signposts from throughout Herbie Hancock’s career, spotlighting some of his most dazzling creative peaks and the amazing range of his talents.
Herbie Hancock’s first breakout hit, “Watermelon Man,” from his debut solo record Takin’ Off, was also his first attempt to musically describe his thoughts on the black experience in America. In the clip below, we hear him explain the song’s writing process and hear a beautiful rendition of his introduction to the music world.
“So What” with Miles Davis
When the invitation came to join the most revered innovator in the jazz world, Herbie Hancock quickly accepted the coveted role of piano player for the one and only Miles Davis. As you will see in the video that follows from the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival, Hancock is delighted to be part of the experience.
Even while playing with Davis, Hancock was writing and composing music for his solo releases as well. He was averaging between two and three albums a year and showing sure signs of a creative force in first bloom. Give a listen to one of his more memorable piano movements from those heady early days, the sunny “Mimosa,” below.
[Video: Roger rogerjazzfan]
“Chameleon” with The Headhunters
Hancock assembled arguably his most fabled bands, The Headhunters, to make a fresh start and explore new territory. With Bennie Maupin, Paul Jackson, Harvey Mason and Bill Summers, the group was ready to follow Hancock past the boundaries of both jazz and funk to find a fertile new ground in jazz-fusion. Here’s a live take on their incredible composition, “Chameleon.”
[Video: Miguel Tuna]
Jam with Chick Corea
The two greatest jazz pianists of the age, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, forged an incredibly challenging and entertaining partnership. Their live shows have moved into the territory of legend, with the two juggernaut talents engaging in incredible improvisational faceoffs that would regularly leave audiences awestruck. Check out this amazing clip of Hancock and Corea from 1978 for a trip beyond the keyboard and into the soul of the piano itself.
“Maiden Voyage” with V.S.O.P. Quintet
Towards the end of the ’70s, Hancock spent more time in the acoustic end of the jazz spectrum. To do so, he reunited the classic Miles Davis Quintet, only replacing Davis with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Even without Davis, they were an expressive force to be reckoned with, as you can tell in the clip of one of their beautiful rendition of “Maiden Voyage” below.
[Video: Herbie Hancock – Topic]
Never one to rest on his laurels, Hancock wanted to explore the new styles of the pop world in the early eighties. MTV had introduced the world to their idols, and a colorful crop of artists was pushing the boundaries of mainstream radio. Hancock teamed with producer Bill Laswell to produce “Rockit,” a foray into electronic music and samples. Watch a special live rendition with Grand Mixer DXT and Bill Laswell below.
[Video: Vincent Vicario]
In the early nineties, Hancock continued to make music as relevant as possible. His take on acid jazz, Dis Is Da Drum, bridged the gap between the electronica producers and the old school players, showing that the potential of this new sound was truly unlimited.
“St. Louis Blues” with Stevie Wonder
Even though Hancock is responsible for some of jazz’s most memorable moments himself, he’s always enjoyed the opportunity to spotlight music’s greatest melodies. In 1997, he released Gershwin’s World, bringing an all-star cast together to help him pay homage to the songbook of the legendary composers George and Ira Gershwin. Check out his collaboration with Stevie Wonder on the classic “St. Louis Blues” below.
[Video: claudio tiseira]
“Space Captain” with Tedeschi Trucks Band
Hancock has acted as an ambassador for music itself on many occasions, as his ability to blend with players and sounds from any genre is unmatched. That talent is put on fine display with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, merging southern soul and sweet piano to give a stunning, joyful feeling on their rendition of “Space Captain”.
[Video: Herbie Hancock]
[Originally published 4/12/16]