Restless Visionary: Eight groundbreaking Herbie Hancock tracks

Herbie Hancock is a restless visionary and groundbreaking artist. This year marks the 80th birthday of one of music’s most important innovators. Growing up in Chicago, being a classical piano prodigy, and having an insatiable appetite for curiosity, both as a player and technological innovator the keyboardist has pushed the boundaries of genre and collaboration for over 50 years. From his beginnings with Donald Byrd, to his life changing experience as a member of the […]

Herbie Hancock is a restless visionary and groundbreaking artist. This year marks the 80th birthday of one of music’s most important innovators. Growing up in Chicago, being a classical piano prodigy, and having an insatiable appetite for curiosity, both as a player and technological innovator the keyboardist has pushed the boundaries of genre and collaboration for over 50 years. From his beginnings with Donald Byrd, to his life changing experience as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet for five years, Hancock has walked a musical tightrope of creation.

This piece  focuses on a carefully curated selection of eight  groundbreaking Hancock  tracks that go beyond the borders of jazz and are significant for their enduring influence, and use of new technologies at the time: the Arp, Moog, Prophet and Oberheim synthesizers, the Fender Rhodes electric piano, the Sennheiser vocoder, the Linn LM-1 drum machine and the parents of modern digital audio workstations, the Fairlight and Synclavier synthesizers.  One track, “Harvest Time” while acoustic in nature, is included for it’s use of then new digital recording technology and the audiophile direct to disc recording system.

Rain Dance from Sextant (Columbia, 1972).   Hancock left Blue Note in 1969, and signed with Warner Bros for three albums.  Following Fat Albert Rotunda, a soundtrack for Bill Cosby’s television show that introduced funk into Herbie’s repertoire moreso than an initially rejected (but later released) track “Don’t Even Go There” or his soundtrack for the Italian cult classic film Blow UpFat Albert Rotunda still retained the lush rich orchestrations of his final Blue Note albums Speak Like A Child  (1968) and The Prisoner (1969) but  Mwandishi, consisting of Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Bennie Maupin on reeds, Julian Priester on trombones, Buster Williams on bass and Billy Hart on drums and Dr. Patrick Gleeson on synthesizer. the band sought something different.  From Crossings (1972) the band’s second album, and the ensemble freely explored avant leaning improvisations, treacherous odd meters and textures influenced by musique concrete and composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Additionally, with  burgeoning black consciousness expanding following the civil rights movement each musician adopted African names– Mwandishi, Hancock’s chosen moniker meant teacher or leader in Swahili.  A huge reason for the bands success as a working unit t was not just Hancock, it was the man who introduced him to synthesis, Dr. Patrick Gleeson who not only provided ground breaking and other worldly synth textures to Crossings, and Sextant but also toured with the ensemble .  Background on  Dr. Gleeson is critically important to understanding why “Rain Dance” is such a pivotal track.  Hancock’s primary use of Fender Rhodes electric piano as opposed to his customary acoustic, fitted with an echo plex tape device permitted cosmic and under water like textures that sounded unlike anything else at the time.

Gleeson’s goal was to originally play jazz piano.    Hailing from Seattle, he eventually forged an academic career teaching English literature and was also a significant political activist.  The time of the late 1960’s was a new cultural frontier with Eastern spirituality, the traumas and outrage from the Vietnam war, and growing tensions from the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.   While teaching, Gleeson’s experience of tripping on acid, led him  to return to music  in a roundabout way.  These events lead to  the creation of Different Fur Trading a community funded studio which Hancock also used for Headhunters. Further, Gleeson’s challenges as a political activist and strong conviction against practices at the university landed him an unjust arrest record, and following leaving the university began his quest of integrating music and technology in unprecedented ways.  His mission was to investigate synthesis in a manner that would eventually lead to innovative, practical applications beyond the walls of an academic institution.

The professor’s first forays into synthesis began while he used San Francisco State’s AV facilities department to record mundane sounds which would be later edited, and used as transitional material between rock groups at local SF venues such as the Avalon Ballroom and the Haight Theater.  As Gleeson  noted in a 2015 interview with Red Bull Music Academy:

“It was electronic music, not jazz. And when I say electronic music, I really mean musique concrète – tape manipulations and that sort of thing. There was no real distinction at the time,” he recalls. He began using equipment from San Francisco State’s AV department to go out and record sounds from his everyday life, which he would then splice with a razorblade. “We’d put on performances of this stuff at places like The Avalon Ballroom or at some theater in the Haight. We’d do it between rock groups. You know? You’d bring your shit in and turn it on. And everyone was out of their heads on acid, so no matter what you did they’d say, ‘Wow, this sounds great!’”

These experiments would later foster a relationship with the Divisadero Street Tape Music Center where Dr. Gleeson would encounter avant garde luminaries such as pioneer composers of so called “minimal” music, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and also Don Buchla of whom he acquired the first Buchla synth unit.  Without Gleeson, or Bwana as he was known in the band, the music of Mwandishi would not have turned out as it did.  During the sessions for Crossings, the final album for Warner Brothers and arguably the group’s most adventurous album, Gleeson further explained in the Red Bull Academy interview:

“I told him about what I’d been doing with Bitches Brew and said, ‘I’d like to get in on this. I can do this.’ And so, David went to Herbie and (I later found out) said, ‘Look, there’s this guy, he’s not in your league – which, fair enough, who is – but he’s been doing synthesizer programming for me and he can play. But what he can really do is set the machine up for you.’”

At the time, Hancock and the Mwandishi band were recording Crossings, the daring follow-up to Mwandishi. Rubinson advised Hancock to bring some of the already recorded material to Different Fur to see what they might add. “So Herbie comes down to the studio with the material they’d already recorded. I’d just bought a 16 track, and it had a loop function. So he tells me to set everything up and he puts on ‘Quasar.’ So we’re listening and he says, ‘Can we hear that again?’ We loop it. He says, ‘I’m thinking of something we can add here.’ So I start patching the Moog 3, and I’m just rushing like crazy because I think I have no time to get this shit together. And then he says, ‘Okay, did you record that?’ And I tell him no because I was setting up the synthesizer for him to play. And Herbie being Herbie, he liked what I was doing and says, ‘Well, why don’t you just keep playing, I’ll be back later, just keep going.’ And by the time he’d come back the next day I’d overdubbed an entire side of the album.”

Hancock’s Milesian instincts to let Gleeson just be himself, set the stage for some of the most intriguing music yet heard in the keyboardist’s oeuvre.  “Quasar” alternates odd meters, swing, unusual electronic textures with voices for something sounding like a soundtrack for a super hero epic, while Bennie Maupin’s strange “Water Torture” lays a few thematic elements that mood wise would resurface on “Vein Melter” the last cut on Headhunters and intense dramatic arc from Gleeson’s synth work amidst highly conversational rubato playing.  Gleeson’s overdubs in a marvel of post production sound absolutely as if he was playing with the band in the studio in real time.


“Rain Dance” was the opening track on Hancock’s first Columbia album Sextant (1972). Aside  from Robert Springett’s futuristic cover art continued from Crossings , the track is a microcosm of the keyboardist’s fascination with technology and genre blurring.  Kraftwerk had also laid the template for electronic music producers in the ensuing decades in the 1960’s, but “Rain Dance” with it’s use  of analog synth sequencing at the cut’s opening, hand claps, and panoply of electronic sounds juxtaposed with the acoustic sounds of bass and drums, with Henderson’s heavily reverberant trumpet sounded of the the future.  The burbling, occasionally discordant synth blasts  from Gleeson  (who also makes brilliant textural contributions to Joe Henderson’s Black Narcissus) firmly rooted in the tradition of pieces such as Edgar Varese’s “Poeme Electronique” (1958) but also pointing to untraveled places, forming a wall of noise were also ahead of their time and a blueprint for a lot of current trends in electronic music.  The overall sound of Sextant did signal some changes in that it was leaning towards in some respects the funkier direction  of Headhunters.  It is the most accessible of all the Mwandishi recordings but no less challenging and rewarding.  Dr. Gleeson has recently released an electronic interpretation of Holst’s The Planets and for further reading on Mwandishi, Bob Gluck’s You Know When You’ll Get There: Herbie Hancock and The Mwandishi Band is available.

Chameleon from Headhunters (Columbia, 1973)

Hancock’s Mwandishi group, despite being some of the most satisfying artistic work of his entire career was unsustainable commercially.  Their live shows, (of which no tapes reportedly survive of officially recorded material) were legendary for traveling to unknown vistas. Much like former boss Miles Davis, Hancock was looking at new ways of reinventing his sound and gaining a new audience.  He took interest in the music of Sly Stone, and James Brown and sought to reconcile that with his own conception.  Bennie Maupin remained on saxophones, while Hancock added bassist Paul Jackson, the specialist maestro of African percussion, Bill Summers, and drummer Harvey Mason.  The result was Headhunters, a journey into in the pocket but simultaneously elastic funk, jazz improvisation and advanced harmony.  The music was such a change for Hancock in the eyes of Columbia record executives, that he and manager David Rubinson had to fight to get it released.  Also, “Chameleon” itself had to be edited down to 7 minutes from 15 and a half minutes to accommodate single release.

The track’s iconic bass line with Hancock on an Arp Odyssey synthesizer was a bit of a role reversal.  As the Miles Davis Quintet reversed roles with the rhythm section leading Wayne Shorter’s classic “Nefertiti”, Hancock took an active role as a bass player AND guitarist through guitar like comping on the Hohner D-6 clavinet via overdubs.  Bassist Paul Jackson, a former acoustic bassist whose electric bass lines captured an agility of an acoustic, tuned up the electric bass and used it as an electric guitar adding more counterpoint in the thick polyrhythmic stew.  Hancock’s Arp Odyssey solo on the first section explored it’s timbral and textural capacity.  On the third section of the track with rich harmonies often omitted when bands cover the track, the keyboardist has yet another iconic moment with his rich, pillowy Fender Rhodes electric piano solo.  Ironically, the Fender Rhodes was developed in the 1940’s but did not see widespread popular music use until the late 60’s and by the early 70’s, had become the de facto keyboard sound of a decade.  Hancock, along with Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul had developed an immensely personal voice on the instrument,  and along with Corea has been for years one of the most imitated and emulated sounds  in all of music.  While Hancock’s solo made use of the stereo tremolo on the Rhodes, his Arp string ensemble orchestrations were so organic they sounded like a real string section– even more convincing than the analog tape loops used for the mellotron, which can be viewed as one of the world’s first sampling keyboards long before the Fairlight and Synclavier entered the digital realm.

Come Running To Me from Sunlight (Columbia, 1977)

Sunlight followed several albums that included the Headhunters line up Thrust (1974) and the live initially only released in Japan Flood (1975) with the exception of Mike Clark adding his innovative funk conception based out of Oakland replacing Harvey Mason.  Man Child (1975)and Secrets (1976) refined the R&B and funk that Hancock first explored with Headhunters with vestiges of the Headhunters lineups mixed with the cream of the crop of LA studio pros.  The productions became slicker, and more commercial with the aim of really crossing over to the popular music tastes in the black community that were captured by Sly Stone, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic and Earth, Wind and Fire just to name a few.  With Sunlight, Hancock aimed at the disco crowd with it’s title track and thumping lead single “I Thought It Was You”; but there was a distinct difference this time around.  Not only did Hancock play keyboards, but also became a lead singer.

If the thought of Hancock becoming a vocalist seems like a paradox viewed from a jazz purist perspective, it is the root of his next sonic and technological innovation.  Vocoders seem like just a normal part of the musical landscape today, as well as being the technology that is at the core of Autotune, Melodyne and other pitch correction software- but it was quite fresh in the 1970’s.  The vocoder was developed by Homer Dudley, who worked at Bell Labs, first patented in 1928 and used for military use.  The function of the vocoder was to convert human speech and break it down as digital bits garbling, distorting it,  giving a robotic sound.  The intended use of the vocoder originally was for underwater communication.  Kraftwerk was a huge proponent of the instrument, the same time as Hancock.  Avant garde icon Laurie Anderson also had a major mainstream hit with 1983’s “O Superman” in which the vocoder was used to transmit a cold, harsh, robotized voice that satirized the corporate nature that society had morphed into.  The Sennheiser vocoder offered the keyboardist a chance to sing with his imperfect voice.  


“Come Running To Me” was a lush love song co written with hit maker Allee Willis, and also contained orchestration from brass, reeds and strings.  Hancock’s arrangement recalled the gorgeous dark instrumental timbres found on Speak Like A Child, The Prisoner and “Tell Me A Bed Time Story” on Fat Albert Rotunda.   The vocoded singing seemed to portray an extra feeling of longing, the detached humanity adding melancholy.  The track has been incredibly popular with hip hoppers, especially the late J Dilla ingeniously slowing it down in a track, and long before Daft Punk, Sunlight was a shining example of vocoder use in popular music.  Hancock would continue to use the vocoder to varying degrees of success on future albums, and as recently as a few years ago began using it again in live concerts reprising “Come Running to Me”.

The Piano (CBS/Sony, 1978)

There is a reason for including an entire album in this list of eight tracks, because it is of a piece.  The Piano was one of eight albums that Hancock recorded for Columbia’s Japanese affiliate CBS/Sony.  Prior to it’s debut U.S. CD release in 2004,  and subsequent reissue in The Complete Columbia Album Collection 1972-1988 the album was also one of the rarest and hardest to find in Hancock’s discography.  The CBS/Sony connection allowed the keyboardist to record straight ahead albums that the U.S. Columbia branch deemed not as profitable, but they also gave him the opportunity to test out emerging technologies.  Sony had developed the PCM 1600 for digital recording one of the first widely available digital recording systems, and also were actively involved in the audiophile direct to disc process in which a performer played live in real time as a vinyl album was being cut, by a stylus cutting into a lathe, not unlike early pre magnetic tape recording at the start of recorded music.  A back up digital tape was made of the session, but the direct to disc process forced Hancock to cut a precise error free suite of songs without stopping, enough to cover an LP side.  Hancock played a variety of tunes, both standards associated with Miles Davis, and recent originals.  The album sounds absolutely incredible, and is a rare example of him as a solo pianist.

Textures from Mr. Hands (Columbia, 1980)

Mr Hands was Hancock’s last funk album before the next  stylistic change into pop, rock and R&B.  The brief stylistic detour would ultimately culminate in his electro and techno based trilogy with Bill Laswell that through the smash “Rockit” would make Hancock a household name for an entire new generation that did not grow up on jazz.  “Textures” book ended an album that saw Hancock reunite with the original Headhunters lineup with Harvey Mason, Ron Carter and Tony Williams whom he had been playing with in the VSOP Quintet, and Jaco Pastorius.  The track was significant because not only did the keyboardist play all instruments himself, but he debuted a new piece of gear into his arsenal– the digital, sample based Linn LM-1 drum machine.  The LM-1, while not the first drum machine to exist, did change the face of pop music forever as it was prominent throughout the new decade of the 80’s.  Hancock programmed a relatively simple, subtly swinging beat, but it’s striking  in the context of the moody sound scape the track created, which also included his trusty  Sennheiser vocoder.

The Twilight Clone from Magic Windows (Columbia, 1981)

The album Magic Windows was the second in a triptych that saw Hancock interested in more of an L.A. rock, R&B and funk based sound but also still contained disco elements with the track “Magic Number” featuring Sylvester on vocals.  “The Twilight Clone”, the final track is a fascinating pre Future Shock glimpse into the musical world Hancock would inhabit a year and a half later with Bill Laswell.  In some ways the track is even more effective than the Laswell collaborations because there is a real post futurist dystopian grit through the use of the LM-1, Hancock’s synthesizers and the otherwordly tones of  King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew that seemingly suggest a neon industrial city, the stuff of cyberpunk stories like Blade Runner or Japanese animation classics like Akira.

Rockit from Future Shock (Columbia, 1983)

“Rockit” from the first album with producer/bassist Bill Laswell and his collective Material was a game changing track in a lot of ways.  Not only did it elevate Hancock to household name status, he was one of the first artists with a jazz background to take on the young genre of hip hop on it’s own terms.  Previously Fab Five Freddy collaborated with Max Roach, but in it’s scope seemed to be more of something to connect the roots of hip hop to jazz.  With “Rockit”, Hancock was willing to take the music on it’s own terms, and after his string of pop and R&B albums wished to try something new.  Hancock had heard a tape of Material, was blown away by that and the use of early turntablism on a track from Malcolm McLaren and agreed to collaborate with Laswell and together incorporated these elements into the track.  As Hancock detailed in his memoir Possibilities once Columbia executives were presented with the track at a meeting, they heard the sound of a record scratching courtesy of Grand Mixer D. ST (now DXT) at the start of the track, and could not make sense of it. 


As with Headhunters ten years earlier, the label felt that this new sound had nothing to do with Hancock’s previous work, had no idea how to market it and Hancock had to once more fight to have the album released.  Perhaps more than the hip hop and b-boy culture embracing the song, it’s video with robotic mannequins created by Jim Whiting had the biggest culture impact.  Hancock won an MTV video award for the bizarre, memorable video, as well as a Grammy, and as MTV was first starting, they refused to play black artists on TV, which is why Hancock only appeared on a video screen.  Along with Michael Jackson, Hancock was the other prominent black artist to get played on MTV, a major achievement that would pave the way for Prince, various hip hop artists and in future generations, Beyonce and Kanye West.  The mechanized feel of the track was also accomplished through the use of the Fairlight CMI, E-Mu digital keyboard and a host of other devices.  The Fairlight, along with it’s competitor New England Digital’s Synclavier were some of the main production tools in pop music in the 80’s and their host of recognizable timbres and samples can be found on countless recordings of the era.

Dis Is Da Drum from Dis Is Da Drum (Mercury, 1994)

A decade after “Rockit”, Herbie Hancock began a deal with a new label and was searching once more to update his sound.  For non jazz projects, he signed with Mercury, and for jazz oriented projects he signed with the legendary Verve Records.  The bulk of his most path breaking music was on Columbia, a tenure that ended with Perfect Machine  the final collaboration for the label with Bill Laswell in 1988.  This new deal offered some intriguing possibilities that would once again place Hancock at the forefront of technical innovation.  The initial concept for Dis Is Da Drum started as an interactive multimedia album, in which the user could choose different mixes, and make choices in the direction of the recording.  The idea/format never really took off in the form it was intended, but Hancock did innovate this 90’s hip hop and dance flavored track with another visionary video that used CGI and early facial motion capture.

(c)2020, CJ Shearn for New York Jazz Workshop, LLC

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