Herbie Hancock was a very busy man in the late 1970s, and he was doing it all for the love of the music. Although his flagship project, the Headhunters, were meeting with worldwide success, his other projects were less well received. His work with the VSOP quartet was released mainly in Japan, as was his 1977 solo piano recording The Piano. Thanks to a renewed interest in quality jazz music regardless of when it was recorded, Columbia Legacy (an appendage of Sony) is now giving a number of excellent lost albums their first US release.
Originally intended for release only in Japan thanks to limited interest in acoustic jazz at home, 1977’s The Piano is a sort of counterpart to Hancock’s turbulent post-bop work with VSOP and the electronic funk of the Headhunters. One of the first albums to be recorded digitally, Hancock intended The Piano as a sort of homage to the way records were made in the early days of jazz. For this album, he used a technique called direct-to-disc, in which the player or players choose three or four songs totalling the length of an LP side (in this case 16 minutes) and then play them live consecutively, leaving enough space between each selection to allow for a good spiral groove to separate them.
In this case, Hancock selected for side one three songs closely associated with Miles Davis; “My Funny Valentine,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” and “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and for side two four original compositions. Playing alone, Hancock ran through each of the seven songs in sequence three times and made an album out of the best overall take. Although reminiscent in a way of Bill Evans’ landmark triple-overdubbed solo piano album Conversations With Myself, Hancock’s aim is very different – here the conversations are monologues and silence is an instrument.
Displaying the sensitive touch and harmonic ear he is known for, Hancock deconstructs his selections and pensively turns them inside out, searching for their emotional core. Moving far beyond jazz and the lounge-piano cliches that come so easily on the standards chosen, Hancock turns “My Funny Valentine” into a study in Romantic-era harmony, sounding more like French composers Erik Satie or Maurice Ravel than Miles Davis or Bill Evans. Part of this is due to the extended chords Hancock chooses, painting sheets of suspended notes over chords and decorating his melody with sotto voce runs and fills.
Hancock give each selection a similar treatment, turning each one into a perfect little jewelbox of gorgeous and brilliant playing. Like a Japanese painting done on the thinnest of papers with the fewest possible strokes of a brush, The Piano is an expressively minimalist exercise in taste and restraint. Moreover, that it comes from the same man who was in the same period wrangling a synthesizer in the Headhunters and sparring with VSOP is positively stunning and a little unbelievable.
Herbie Hancock’s recorded output is both extensive and spotty, and it can be difficult for someone just getting acquainted with his work to know quite where to begin. Both The Piano and its Columbia/Legacy partner release VSOP: Live Under The Sky deserve a place on every jazz fan’s shelf as major contributions not only to the work of one the greatest living keyboardists but to the state of the art of jazz.
This post also appears at the Ministry of Minor Perfidy. The Ministry of Minor Perfidy: providing you with the tools you need to survive the coming invasion of the space robots.