Like his former employer Miles Davis, the incredibly talented keyboardist Herbie Hancock has been honored with a massive box set from Columbia Legacy. The Complete Columbia Album Collection 1972-1988 contains all 31 albums Hancock released on the label, spread out over 34 compact discs. This is an impressive set for many reasons, not the least of which is the opportunity for fans in the United States to own albums which have never been available on CD before, have never been available in the U.S. before, or have been out of print for years.
Considering all that it includes, the set is very reasonably priced. I still had to wonder though, who on Earth besides die-hard fans would need a 34-CD box? Then I realized the depth of Hancock’s impact on jazz over this period. He was either directly responsible for, or a major participant in every direction the music took during the ‘70s and ‘80s. In just about every way, these 31 albums represent a microcosm of jazz in those years.
Hancock’s first Columbia album was Sextant (1973) with The Mwandishi Band, who got their name from the Swahili names taken by the musicians. They looked to Africa for inspiration, but the record stalled at number 176 on the Billboard chart. Head Hunters (1973) was where things really took off. Hancock had his ear to the ground, and the sound of young Black America in 1973 was funk. An edited version of “Chameleon” was released as a single, and it exploded. The single took the album to R.I.A.A. Certified Platinum status, and spawned a whole new genre.
The music was dubbed jazz-funk, and Hancock continued in this vein with his electric albums for the next few years. The music was great, and very popular, but the artist was restless. In 1977, Hancock released an album titled V.S.O.P. The initials stand for Very Special One-Time Performance, and the live set was a return to his roots in acoustic jazz. The band was a reunion of Miles Davis’ “second great quintet,“ where Hancock got his big break. Unfortunately, Davis was unavailable, so trumpeter Freddie Hubbard joined Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Hancock for the event. This recording set the stage for the acoustic revival of the ‘80s, which became the dominant jazz form of the decade.
While Wynton Marsalis and others looked backwards, Hancock looked ahead to the nascent hip-hop scene for inspiration. The resulting Future Shock (1983) would become his second Platinum album, propelled by the hit single “Rockit.” The “Rockit” video was one of the greatest ever, and garnered five MTV Video Music Awards. Ten years after Head Hunters, Hancock had done it again.
Village Life (1985) was a fascinating collaboration with Foday Musa Suso, and an early entry in the emerging “world music” movement. In 1986, Hancock provided the soundtrack for one of the best films of the year, Round Midnight.
This is obviously just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Hancock’s prolific output in the 16 years he spent with Columbia. For a more comprehensive examination of the music, the set includes a 200-page book in which each album is discussed in-depth. There are also features on the various roles Hancock has played behind-the-scenes, as well as sidebars about his late sister Jean Hancock, who provided lyrics for many of his songs, and producer David Rubinson.
There are eight albums that were previously only available in Japan (in any format) included in the set. These are Dedication (1974), Flood (1975), The Herbie Hancock Trio (1977), Tempest in the Colosseum (1977), Directstep (1978), Five Stars (1979), Butterfly (1979), and The Herbie Hancock Trio with Ron Carter + Tony Williams (1981).
Sunlight (1978), Magic Windows (1981), and Lite Me Up (1982) all make their U.S. CD debuts in this collection also.
As writer Bob Belden states in one of the book’s essays, “Within these CDs you can listen to a musician reinvent himself time and time again, all at his terms.” I certainly agree. Herbie Hancock remained artistically relevant for the entire 16 years he was with Columbia, and that is a long period of time for any musician. There is no denying that a 34-CD box-set is a significant purchase, but for anyone interested in the development of jazz during the ’70s and ’80s, it would be hard to beat this collection.