Signed to Blue Note and with one well received solo album already behind him (including the indelible Watermelon Man), Herbie Hancock was so good that Miles Davis personally sought him out when Hancock was still only 23 to join what is still today known as his second great quintet (many jazz writers would give those words initial caps by the way – that’s the kind of band we’re dealing with): Hancock on piano, Tony Williams on drums, Ron Carter on bass, Wayne Shorter on saxophone and Miles himself on trumpet and flugelhorn.
While working with Davis, Hancock still released records as a bandleader, now using some of his colleagues from Miles’s crew himself. Carter and Williams both appear on his third solo album, Empyrean Isles, along with the great Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. Hancock was consciously pursuing a small-group sound, and incorporated lower-pitched chord voicings into his own piano playing to balance the higher-register trumpet and to compensate for not having a tenor sax in the line-up.
Empyrean Isles contains the deathless Cantaloupe Island. Like many people my age, I grew up knowing Cantaloupe Island second-hand – when I first heard Herbie doing it, I recognised it immediately as the record that US3 sampled for Cantaloop.
Cantaloupe Island lends itself to being sampled for a pop track much more than most jazz standards as Tony Williams is playing straight eights on his ride cymbal, not the typical jazz drummer’s triplet pattern – that is, he’s playing one-and-TWO-and-three-and-FOUR. Not and-a-ONE-and-a-TWO-and-a-THREE-and-a-FOUR. Carter keeps himself to a supporting role, while Hubbard and Hancock get to play fun stuff. Hancock’s instantly recognisable piano riff starts off feeling like a simple blues riff, but this being Herbie, he soon takes it into more advanced harmonic territory. With each change, the mood darkens as he takes the harmony further away from Hubbard’s F-minor pentatonic melody. Consequently, when the beginning of the sequence comes back around, it feels like the sun coming out.
The thing I love about Hancock’s music is his eagerness to embrace every kind of music he can get his hands on. Cantaloupe Island smells strongly of the blues and gospel. He’s incorporated funk, disco and hip-hop. While traditionalists argued about whether Miles Davis’s electric funk records were still jazz, Herbie was banging out Rockit, an electro classic with a hip-hop DJ scratching all over it, and getting play on MTV – and that wasn’t easy for a black artist to do in the early 1980s (even Michael Jackson’s label had to fight to get the video for Billie Jean on the station). Herbie was – and remains – a fountain of music.