In the mid ’70s, Herbie Hancock was making a significant career transition. He’d left Miles Davis‘s band in 1969, though he popped up again as one of the army of keyboardists on 1972’s On the Corner (saxophonist Dave Liebman, who had to record his album-opening soprano sax solo without headphones, has described the studio as sounding like a typing pool). He’d always maintained a parallel solo career, of course. His debut as a leader, 1962’s Takin’ Off, was recorded almost exactly a year before he joined Davis for the Seven Steps to Heaven sessions in May 1963. After leaving the trumpeter’s employ, his music became as abstract, electronic, and funky as that of his former boss; the Mwandishi sextet/septet charted a course that led from Africa (each of the band members adopted Swahili names) all the way out into space over the course of three brilliant albums. Commercial success eluded them, though, and in 1973 Hancock formed a new band, the Headhunters, retaining only reeds player Bennie Maupin from Mwandishi.
The Headhunters made four albums with Hancock: their massively successful and influential self-titled debut, 1974’s Thrust, and 1975’s Man-Child and the Japan-only live Flood. Thrust and Man-Child have just been reissued, along with 1976’s Secrets, as a two-CD set. (Get it from Amazon.) Taken together, they map Hancock’s journey from crisp, focused art-funk to something very close to disco-jazz fusion.
Thrust is very much in the spirit of Head Hunters, but its grooves are more intricate, mostly due to the replacement of drummer Harvey Mason with Mike Clark. (Clark tells many fantastic stories, and offers insights into jazz, funk and rock drumming, in this interview.) The drums are extremely dry and skittery, with Hancock’s keyboards soaring and Maupin’s reeds interjecting short, hooky bursts of melody. Truly extroverted solos are rare, though Maupin does cut loose on “Spank-A-Lee.” The album only shifts away from hardcore groove once, on the meditative “Butterfly,” which ticks steadily along as bass clarinet, electric bass and synths all wind around each other.
Stream the single edit of “Palm Grease”:
Man-Child featured numerous guests in addition to the core personnel: Hancock’s former Davis bandmate Wayne Shorter contributes saxophone to “The Traitor,” and Stevie Wonder plays harmonica on “Steppin’ In It.” The horn section is expanded to include trumpets, trombone, and even tuba. The most significant change, though, is the addition of electric guitar, mostly by Motown session ace Wah Wah Watson, though Dewayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight, who’d later join P-Funk, and David T. Walker, who’d played with Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, are also present. Watson’s strutting line on “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” kicks off the album and sets the tone for the whole thing, though McKnight would make the song his own on Flood, with the band stretching it out to nearly 20 astonishing minutes. Man-Child alternates between fast, funky songs and dreamy ballads like “Sun Touch” and the spacy “Bubbles,” and might be even funkier than its two predecessors. It’s easily one of Hancock’s best albums of the era.
Stream the single edit of “Hang Up Your Hang Ups”:
The third and final album included in this set, 1976’s Secrets, moved even more in the direction of radio-friendly funk than either of its predecessors. The opening track (and single), “Doin’ It,” was co-written by Hancock, Wah Wah Watson, and Ray Parker Jr. (yes, the “Ghostbusters” guy), and features the two guitarists singing the title phrase through a Vocoder, as bassist Paul Jackson locks into a straight-up disco groove. The album also includes a remake of his own “Cantaloupe Island” (renamed “Cantelope Island” for some reason), set to a ticking pseudo-reggae rhythm. “Gentle Thoughts” thumps way too hard to live up to that title, while “Spider” would have made a great blaxploitation theme, and album closer “Sansho Shima” starts off gentle, then surges into high gear, ultimately featuring some of Hancock’s wildest playing on the entire album. Secrets lives up to its title—it only pretends to be a pop sellout. It’s actually highly adventurous, and intense as hell at times.
Stream the single edit of “Doin’ It”:
Surprisingly, after the release of Secrets, Hancock retreated into acoustic jazz. He formed a trio with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, formerly of the Miles Davis Quintet, then added Shorter and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard under the name V.S.O.P. When he plugged in again, on 1978’s Sunlight, 1979’s Feets Don’t Fail Me Now, and 1980’s Monster, the music headed even more in the direction of disco and electro-funk. None of this material is as interesting as that collected on this two-CD set, which seems at first to mark a transitional phase but in fact exists as a high-water mark in Herbie Hancock‘s career. And while its budget price makes it appealing to casual fans seeking to investigate his music for the first time, hardcore fans will also want to pick it up because of the inclusion of the single edits of “Palm Grease,” “Actual Proof,” “Butterfly,” “Spank-A-Lee,” “Hang Up Your Hang Ups,” “Sun Touch,” “Doin’ It” and “People Music,” none of which have been reissued on CD before.