On My Hard Drive: Herbie Hancock, Naturally 7

First things first: My brother sent me a youtube link the other day, you should watch it:

The group is Naturally 7, and when I first watched the video, I was Tres Impressed. They are a group of 7 guys doing a cappella covers of mostly 80's pop songs. Then I did some other looking around and found out that they do lots of concerts and have a few albums out, etc. Frankly, they are very talented, but if you're going to amount to more than a novelty, you're going to need to have some original material, and a recording/distrubution deal. Just my $0.02. But they ARE very talented, and if you LOVE that Phil Collins tune like i do, it's a fun watch.

Okay, on to the next item. Herbie Hancock has been on my hard drive for a very long time. He's had a career spanning five decades, and has done just about everything. He first got attention by winning a local competition at 11 years old and performed in front of (I believe it was) the Philadelphia Symphony, but I could be mistaken about the specific Symphony - and I just don't have the time or energy to look it all up, because it really doesn't matter to this whole thing.

From there, he continued to pursue music but was convinced that he needed to have a "real" career to pay the bills, and let music be the hobby. He went to school in Engineering, and from what I remember, gained an engineering degree. he said recently in an interview with Studio 360, that music really just chased him down, and made him do it. All of a sudden he was a musician. This gave me pause to think for a bit - I think many of the most successful musicians of our time have found themselves bound, compelled to make music, like a Holy Calling, rather than practicing with an eye toward that career path. At least that's what I think - those who have that special something inside them, that can't be contained, which simply MUST be let out, find themselves drawn toward performing. They are so prodigious, because their talent runs so deep, so natural, that they somehow just become the vessel of their own music. Like I said, that's what I think, and perhaps I cast this sort of prodigious talent in a spiritual or soulful light because that's what it takes to make it really come out - a connection with an inner gyroscope that simply must spin its circle, with or without your permission. In a nutshell, it chooses you, compels you, you don't choose it. If you would like to question that philosophy, you should spend about 4.5 seconds watching American Idol, and then you'll believe me.

In the late 50's and early 60's Hancock was a late-coming member of the famed Miles Davis Quintet, along with Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, and Tenor Saxophonist George Carter. This incarnation of the Quintet tackled the repertoire of the earlier Miles Davis Quintet, but with a more highly developed sense of rhythm and harmony. Many of the songs from this prolific recording era are now standards played by almost every single jazz combo today who is even a little bit serious.

From there, Hancock composed a slew of other now-standards that are also as oft-played as those Davis tunes. After redefining the way a jazz rhythm section interacts with each other, with the music itself, and with the soloists, he was one of the first jazz pianists to adopt technology, and synthesizers was a natural flow from that, with his engineering degree. he says most musicians were scared of that stuff - too many buttons, not enough vacuum tubes, he said. But this was indeed a world with which he was very familiar. At the same time, he developed a love for funk. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his melodies are accessible and easy to recognize. You certainly know a few of them, even if you don't know they're written by him.

And to that note (if you'll pardon the pun) - he introduced a generation of young kids, like me, to funk, while he was writing music for the Saturday morning cartoon, Fat Albert, starring Bill Cosby. Much of that original music is captured on an album named Fat Albert Rotunda, and it's a fun ride in the way-back machine. Many of us know his music, even if we don't realize it.

Like many musicians who have had a 45 year career, he's done just about everything, including now the seemingly mandatory album of duets with other musicians from other genres - that album is Possibilities, and it's better than you will expect. It has duets with such artists as Annie Lennox, Christina Aguilera, John Mayer, Sting, Paul Simon and Santana. It's a pretty good listen.

More recently he did an album of songs by Joni Mitchell, called River. In interesting side note: Hancock reports that when he first played with Mitchell, several years ago, he was surprised by how easily the jazz genre came to her. She told him that she originally wanted to be a jazz musician, but decided to pursue the folkish route we are familiar with today. She said she felt like it would be a better outlet for her lyrical writing. Seems like a pretty good choice. Although I have not listened to the album, critics like it.

I wanted to highlight a specific album though: Head Hunters. It was released in 1973, and was labeled as "fusion" by the critics and reviewers, at term hated by die-hard jazz musicians, even today. One critic was particularly harsh, and wrote a bad review of the album shortly after it was released. 25 years later Hancock ran into that critic backstage at another event, and the critic apologized, saying, "I was wrong about that album." Hancock's response was simply, "I know."

One track I wanted to draw some attention to is Watermelon Man. This tune, in its original form was first released on Maiden Voyage, in 1965. It became a classic for its simplicity and memorable melody (something for which Hancock has become famous over the years). It's a standard learned by all young jazz players who begin to learn about latin rhythms. I've played it myself many times. One of the four tracks on Head Hunters is a new version of Watermelon Man. It's rhythms are bent and twisted into a new form, and the song still retains its original integrity as a standalone song. it is said that if a song can be interpreted in many different styles, it is a fundamentally good bit of writing. (This is something for which Sting has also become known for.) Anyway, that song is worth the price of the album and is a fun listen, even if you aren't familiar with its original incarnation.


That One Guy said...

Correction: Watermelon Man actually first appeared in 1965 on the album Takin' Off.

Reach Upward said...

The Naturally 7 guys are incredible. Some of them have got to have perfect pitch, a talent I envy. It's been a couple of years since I've done barbershop, but I frequently end up doing numbers where the vocals go a capella for part of the song. When the accompaniment cuts out, it's kind of a scary feeling. These guys have the ability to be their own accompaniment. It's a wonderful talent.