No other artist in the last 45 years of jazz has remained on the cutting edge of the music like pianist and keyboardist Herbie Hancock: a musician with passion, an open mind and an awareness of history that constantly propels him forward into new sonic territory.
After listening to the first few songs on The Essential Herbie Hancock, you'll understand this intimately. Both Hancock's 1962 hit "Watermelon Man" and his 1964 gem "Cantaloupe Island," which quietly made a strong contribution to hip-hop music in the 1990s (the group Us3 sampled Hancock's track for their hit "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)") are included in the collection. You'll also hear 1965's "Maiden Voyage," another mainstay on jazz radio for decades now, and a powerful version of "'Round Midnight" by Sonny Rollins where Hancock cleverly backs the saxophonist. Following these four monster recordings, the lineup for the next tune "Circle" is Hancock on keys, Miles Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Tony Williams on drums and Ron Carter on bass. Together, they seem to be saying everything "My Funny Valentine" ever said only in a modern and more expressive way.
A very well put-together release, The Essential Herbie Hancock includes recordings from an assortment of labels where Hancock recorded, including Blue Note, Verve and RCA. Some of the songs are largely forgotten, but this album re-introduces them to the listener, not forgetting any period of Hancock's growth and development. "Butterfly," an electronic dirge from Hancock's 1974 album Thrust, is here and is as powerful as ever, as is "Chameleon," Hancock's 1973 funk anthem.
But it is the lesser-known tunes that make The Essential Herbie Hancock a complete statement. "Hidden Shadows," a Hancock composition from 1973, is one such moment: more than 10 minutes of complete control, power and improvisational perfection where Hancock creates a wall of sound using keyboards, electronic effects and, most importantly, his heart and soul.
The last three recordings of this album bring Hancock's career and this compilation full circle. His 1983 club hit "Rockit," where Hancock anticipates a hip-hop future and battles hip-hop DJ Grandmaster D.S.T. with boldness and fun is followed by a little known version of "St. Louis Blues" with Hancock leading Stevie Wonder on vocals and harp. There are few arrangements of "St. Louis Blues" that are this inventive.
Of course, the final song here is "Manhattan," from his album The New Standard, another moment in Hancock's career where he challenged the status quo of jazz. Appropriately, on "Manhattan," it is Hancock on piano, all alone for a few moments and without need for any assistance--because as always, Herbie Hancock knows exactly what he wants to say.
-Brian Gilmore (as it originally appeared in Jazz Times Magazine)