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Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities – A Review

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Possibilities by Herbie Hancock is scheduled for release August 30. I have been privileged to receive an advance copy for this review.

Herbie Hancock is a bit of a cipher to me. His musical credentials are impeccable having played with the likes of Miles Davis and written jazz near-standards like “Chameleon” and “Watermelon Man.” However, it is as if, from time-to-time, he is overcome with the desire to be mainstream and he churns out stuff like the wildly popular, but ultimately inane and boring “Rockit”

The Possibilities album is a duets album in which he is paired with people ranging from Carlos Santana to Christina Aguilera. Duet albums are usually designed to create sales for artists whose time has past, and for those with which they are paired to pay homage to those great artists. Typically the duet partners work to blend themselves with the style and sound of the primary artist.

This album is precisely the opposite. Hancock works diligently to suit himself to the work of the artists with whom he is paired. The result is an album that lacks any central themes or sound. This is just another nail in the album form’s coffin. It becomes impossible to review it as an album — the best one can do is look at the individual cuts.

There is nothing bad on this CD, but of the 10 cuts only a few could be called “good.” In large part the cuts are indistinguishable background music falling basically in the realm of “smooth jazz.” Four cuts deserve special mention.

“I Just Called To Say I Love You” a Stevie Wonder cover pairs Hancock with Raul Midon and contains some very interesting musical ideas which are fascinating to listen to, but ultimately they fail to please.

“Sister Moon” pairs Hancock with Sting. The cut pleases without being truly outstanding. “When Love Comes To Town” pairing Hancock with Joss Stone and Jonny Lang is a remarkably innovative cover of the old BB King blues standard. They have succeeded in breathing new life into this old song and it is a joy to hear.

Far and away, the standout cut of the CD is “Stitched Up” pairing Hancock and John Mayer. A great blending of soul and jazz, this tune puts a smile on your face and keeps your foot tapping.

While not an album I could list as great, it is an album well worth the price of admission. I just wish it bore more of Herbie Hancock’s stamp and less of his partners.

Cross posted on Blogotional

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  • http://www.magicjunk.com/blog/ Mark Sahm

    Good review, John. When I saw that HH was doing a duets album, I cringed. Having listened to many of his albums, it just seemed like a marketing ploy cast in the footprints of Santana or Ray Charles, instead of his usual style.

    Nevertheless, at the least, Hancock is trying new things and always looking to expand his craft, and I can always enjoy his past works. If such a duets format turns your stomach as well though, check out the classic Headhunters or his Best of Blue Note Years.

  • godoggo

    I think the general and correct critical opinion is that his greatest period was with the psychedelic influenced stuff just before his popular breakthrough Headhunters (which is excellent for what it is), such as Mwandishi  and Crossings. But he has done so much work in so many settings over the years, both as a leader and a sideman, that with a bit of research you’ll be able to find enough to satisfy you regardless of what setting you prefer. One album from not too long ago that I thought really stood out in quality was Gershwin’s World.

  • http://www.magicjunk.com/blog/ Mark Sahm

    Godoggo, I agree. I was just citing my two personal favs. Mwandishi is great too. I have yet to pick up Crossings though.

    HH has such a vast catalog of musical wealth that he could probably put out a death metal album, and it wouldn’t tarnish his legacy a bit. Although… that would be interesting to hear.

  • John Adams

    When I heard this album was being made I was so excited about it,there hasnt been to many good albums lately,or the good cds go under the rader with no talk about them,Like Jonny lang,s last cd,a long time comeing and or Josh stone,s cd,dont anybody listen to these cds anymore,This one I am sure will be great ,hey its got santana on it,I just hope it gets a lot of radio play,thanks mister hancock for not only putting great music out but allso for knowing great talent.

  • Jack

    I was also very excited about a new HH recording and received an advance copy. What a letdown!

    While I agree with some of your comments I think this particular “duets” CD was designed to create sales for HH whose time has definitely not past! Similiar to the 2 recent Santana CDs he is paired with various artists, the difference being that Santana’s CDs were mostly original pop tunes and work very well as POP recordings and to introduce Santana to a new generation of listeners.

    There is no possibility of Possibilities reaching a new audience. It’s that bad!

    Maybe it’s the Starbucks label inluence…

    That said, HH is still a musical treasure that I’m sure has much to offer. I hope he finds a direction.

  • http://choqolat.org/ Charlie B

    Thanks for the review. I also found this album a bit disappointing (other than the Mayer duet, which was nearing sublime). However, it seems that the journey is as important for HH as is the destination, as evidenced by other ‘recent’ collab ‘popular’ works, like Dis is da Drum and Future 2 Future, which although they only have one or two stand out songs, are still influencing modern songwriters and producers.

    Finally, I have to agree with godoggo – my favourite recent work of Herbie’s is Gershwin’s world; the arrangements of Lullaby, Prelude in C# Minor and of course Concerto For Piano And Orchestra In G, 2nd Movement are just brilliant, and continue to make hairs on my neck stand after years of regular and now more occasional listening.

  • godoggo

    “the journey is as important for HH as is the destination”

    That’s the impression I’ve gotten from interviews with him over the years. He just seems to look at various kinds of pop music as a different kind of challenge, an opportunity to stretch beyond his jazz background.

  • QuannW

    Ugh, what a sad day for progressive jazz… and especially considering that right there on the shelf of new releases next to it was what seemed to be a fairly well done Wynton Marsalis live album of mostly standards. Chalk one up for the traditionalists. I think the worst part of the album was how excited I was to see the little known tune, “A Song For You” on there. I have a version of Carmen McRae singing it that is really nearly perfect. Christina Aguilera?! Herbie, I love you, but you hurt my soul today…

  • godoggo

    QuannW, was that from “Great American Songbook” (I just googled the tune)? I’ve been thinking about getting that for a long time, because it has such a great band, but when I listened to some bits in the Borders listening booth, I didn’t think it sounded that good. Carmen’s my all-time favorite singer, but I’ve never been a completist as a record collector.

  • http://gregsudmeiermusic.tripod.com Greg Sudmeier

    Herbie’s new “duets” album is brilliant. His chameleon-like ability to meld and melt into any and every style, and support each and every vocalist is nothing short of amazing. HH allows each artist to be themselve’s yet he adds his own unique touch with the utmost sensitivity.

    Frankly, I am disappointed with the principle review here on this blog. It shows a severe lack of insight as to what Herbie is accomplishing with this project.

    As with all music, one must expereince it for oneself. I strongly urge the readers here to buy the album. If one listens honestly they will hear the profound artistry in every cut on this CD.

  • jsm2045

    I truly dont understand how someone could listen to “A Song For You” and not feel and hear the wonderful piano work he does and the flawless tone and soul that Christina brings to it. The song just blew me away, and I will be shocked if its not somehow nominated for a Grammy. I think artists such as Herbie want to work with a wide variety of other artists to be creative, etc for them, not for their audience. Kudos, Herbie!!

  • godoggo

    Greg and jsm2045, did you come to this as Herbie fans or, say, Christina fans? And if the former, which of his recordings are your favorites. This is not a rhetorical question; it’s just that few people are likely to take buying advice from strangers without knowing their taste.

  • michael

    Obviously, you all don’t understand, Hancock or Jazz for that matter. Jazz structure is based on changing the form of popular music from the 20’s and eariler 1900. Thus, Hancock is is right inline with Jazz tradition, from Bird, Miles and the newest crop of players. Like one of the earlier comments I to am disappointed with the principle review. Take this music apart note by note and it can be used as subject matter for any masters level course on theory and harmony. That’s not pop (all major chords), but Mr. Hancock and Jazz (remeber Jaco and Join Mitchell)!

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com Michael J. West

    The biggest surprise about this review is that one of the likable tracks was with Joss Stone — a woman who proves time and again that vocalists can be every bit as overwrought and self-indulgent as instrumentalists can.

  • Ilan

    I just got a duped copy of this album and the Stevie Wonder song sounds very scratchy and fuzzy at the beginning. Is it supposed to sound this way? Please let me know by emailing me, thanks.

  • Jeffrey A. Hayes

    I have a question…In the documentary “Possibilities” there is old footage of Miles and Herbie and the rest of the quintet. Does anyone know the name of that song? I’m dying to know what that song is so I can get it. Thanks.

  • Peter Affa

    I beg to differ with the review of this album by Herbie Hancock….this is definitely not a “Duets” album in the sense of a marketing tool for an artist whose time has passed….

    Herbie Hancock is a true “artist” in every sense of the word whose work is timeless and goes far beyond the boundaries of commercial music….its true Herbie has recorded material that has become very successful by pop standards and has generated income that most jazz artists would never see in 12 lifetimes, but even then this work has been extremely creative and groundbreaking and has served to open a musical portal for those listeners who would otherwise never experience what a musician like Hebie has to offer….

    As for this particular recording, they all have something unique to offer on an artistic level,with standout tracks being the very funky John Mayer diddy “Stitiched Up” as well as the soulful BB King remake of “When Comes To Town” and the beautiful rendition of Paula Cole’s song with Annie Lennox. The true jewel of this album though comes where Herbie shows his true genius on the cut ” I Just Called To Say I Love You” which hardly even resembles Stevie Wonder’s original version.

    The stunning chordal re-harmonization beneath Wonder’s original melody is nothing short of brilliant with the deeply rich chordal textures breathing completely new life into one of Wonder’s most banal and far from best songs. Raul Midon’s vocal perfomance is equally brilliant and combined with Herbie’s arrangement give new meaning to Wonder’s lyrics to create one of the best remakes of a pop song that I have ever heard.

    Herbie Hancock is a true musical genius and this album is testament to the fact that he continues to expand musical horizons when most music stars just hash out their hits to fatten their bank accounts.

    In his 60’s Herbie Hancock is a vital musical artist (not a star)in every sense of the word and his fame and notoriety are a beacon of well deserved recognition in a time when our culture is steeped in star/idol worship and devoid of
    true creativity for the sake of artistic expression in and of itself. Something rare indeed and to be cherished in such a culturally bankrupt age.