He is, simply, one of the greats of modern American music. For 55 years, Herbie Hancock has been a force in the world of jazz, and one of the few jazz musicians to cross over into the world of pop while keeping his credibility fully intact. A master pianist and composer, Hancock’s fingerprints are on dozens of towering recordings, both under his own name and as a collaborator with others, most notably Miles Davis. He is a man of fascinating breadth and depth. As a child, he played a piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony. As a young man, he studied electrical engineering at Grinnell College. And throughout his life, he has pursued passions beyond music, including an interest in movies and television. He has scored several films (including 1986’s “Round Midnight,” for which he won the Academy Award), and has acted in a few, too, including the recently released “Valerian.” Now 77 years old, the Kennedy Center honoree remains focused on music, and he visits Kansas City on Saturday, Aug. 12 for a performance at the Kauffman Center.
Here are nine performances that touch on some of the peaks of his storied career.
“Watermelon Man” (1962)
From “Takin’ Off,” his debut album as a bandleader, this original composition is the earliest example of Hancock’s near-magical ability to walk a line that precious few other jazz musicians could hope to navigate. The song is easily accessible — you need not be a jazz fan to warm to it instantly — but it retains the sophistication to allow trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist Dexter Gordon to weave through the shapes that Hancock and the rhythm section toss at them. A Latin-tinged version recorded the next year by Mongo Santamaria made it to No. 10 on the singles charts, giving Hancock his first pop hit as a composer.
“Cantaloupe Island” (1963)
Hancock’s 1963 album “Empyrean Isles” is his earliest universally acknowledged classic. It’s also a document of historical importance because it marked the first time that the rhythm section of Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass) and Tony Williams (drums) — who would soon be at the core of some of the decade’s finest music – appeared together on record. Like “Watermelon Man,” “Cantaloupe Island” shows Hancock’s deft marriage of groove and melody, making jazz feel like pop without patronizing either audience. The song became a top 10 hit three decades later when liberally sampled and reworked into the song “Cantaloop” by Us3.
“Dolphin Dance” (1965)
In 1964, Hancock, Carter and Williams joined with saxophonist Wayne Shorter in Miles Davis’ second great quintet, and they became the most important band in the transitional period that saw hard bop expand and then dissolve into the electronic music of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But the trio continued to record under Hancock’s leadership, too, and on 1965’s “Maiden Voyage” they were joined by Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist George Coleman. The album, perhaps Hancock’s most revered, shows another side of him as a composer. Instead of funky hooks, Hancock deploys a languid, almost impressionistic, lyricism. This, the closing track, is pure elegance.
“The Sorcerer” (1967) — Miles Davis
In 1967, Miles Davis released “Sorcerer,” the third album with his second great quintet. This Hancock composition gave the album its title while giving his four bandmates a platform to engage each other with feral intensity. Hancock largely stays out of the way for the first three minutes — and then the waters part and he comes crashing through. As the horns lay out, Herbie goes to work on a long and spectacular solo that finds him dashing through hairpin turns provided by Carter and Williams and emerging triumphant.
“Speak Like a Child” (1968)
Changes came fast in 1968. Miles Davis and the second great quintet released their final album together (“Files de Kilimanjaro”) and Herbie Hancock returned as a bandleader and pursued new ideas with “Speak Like a Child.” It began with shifts in personnel and instrumentation. Ron Carter was the only holdover from the Davis quintet, and Hancock replaced the traditional front line of trumpet and saxophone with flugelhorn, bass trombone and alto flute. The result is lush and romantic, pushing the themes of “Maiden Voyage” past the sea and into the clouds. The mellow horns and woodwinds help to invert the traditional jazz structure, supporting Hancock’s piano excursions instead of him anchoring their improvisations. This, the title track, is one of the loveliest performances of the era.
“Fat Mama” (1969)
Hancock’s first effort at composing for visual media came in 1966 when he provided the score for the classic film “Blow-Up,” where he and his band at times sounded more like a blues-inflected R&B combo (think Booker T & the MGs) than a conventional jazz outfit (more than two decades later, a sample of the bass riff from “Bring Down the Birds” would serve as the central motif in Deee-Lite’s smash “Groove is in the Heart”). In 1969, Hancock took the sound a step further when he composed and performed the music for the primetime animated special “Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert,” the precursor to the later Saturday morning series. The album (called “Fat Albert Rotunda”) featured a more elastic brand of funk, and saw Hancock move from his acoustic piano to the electric Fender Rhodes — but that only hinted at the earth-shaking changes soon to come.
When jazz went electric, it shot off into a multitude of directions, many of them regrettable. But Herbie Hancock had a hand in some of the best, including two of Miles Davis’s landmarks — the burbling, impressionistic “In a Silent Way” (1969) and the bluntly forceful “A Tribute to Jack Johnson” (1971). On his own, though, Hancock forged a different and more concise sound. He embraced funk, and he embraced it hard. He perfected the approach on 1973’s “Head Hunters,” which for years stood as the best-selling jazz album of all-time. Hancock employed the latest technology in synthesizers and electronic effects, an approach that could have made the project sound dated to today’s ears. Instead, it still sounds like the future more than 40 years later, thanks to his deft touch on the keyboards and a rhythm section that relentlessly mines the groove. A landmark achievement in 20th-century music.
Hancock spent the remainder of the 1970s and early 1980s moving between electric and acoustic jazz with a surprising, off-hand ease. He even reunited the second great Miles Davis quintet — with Davis notably replaced by Freddie Hubbard — in the middle of the decade, and their work under the name V.S.O.P. became some of the most beloved jazz of those years. Still, jazz had become a niche taste by that time, and Hancock’s status as a crossover star had diminished. Then came MTV. Though already in his 40s, Hancock enjoyed a moment as a pop star with this hip-hop-inflected electro-funk tune when the innovative video riveted the new cable channel’s audience. “Rockit” took home five trophies at the inaugural MTV Music Video Awards, where he was nominated alongside the likes of Michael Jackson, The Cars, Cyndi Lauper and The Police.
“Edith and the Kingpin” (featuring Tina Turner) (2007)
Throughout her career, Joni Mitchell has brought jazz structures and harmonies to her music, and has worked almost exclusively with jazz musicians, including Herbie Hancock. And so Hancock’s decision to record an album of Mitchell’s songs in 2007 seemed as natural as Miles Davis recording standards by Rodgers and Hart in the 1950s. What was unexpected was the acclaim the project received, including the 2008 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, making it only the second jazz album (after “Getz/Gilberto” in 1965) to take home that prize. Several of the tracks feature guest vocalists, including “Edith and the Kingpin,” which finds Tina Turner employing an uncommon restraint to delightful effect.
—Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the novel Mellow Submarine, which Publishers Weekly calls “a fast-paced delight.” He’s on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.