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The World According to Herbie

Six new releases paint an intriguing picture of jazz chameleon Herbie Hancock.

Most of the improvisational performers who've risen to icon status during the jazz century have done so in part because their brilliant music was paired with a melodramatic personal life. Early death is a big plus in this regard: Such tragedies allow observers and critics to speculate about the great recordings the artist in question would have produced in his later years had fate been less cruel. A lengthy addiction to heroin can be an asset as well, because it hints at the intense pain that no doubt underpins the music, and erratic behavior and/or mental illness come in handy when trying to explain the type of genius that is beyond the comprehension of the average person.

Additionally, jazz heroes generally achieve a level of commercial success that falls short of mass popularity. And in a world where many journalists and fans feel (although they'd never admit it) that they're smarter than those folks into less esoteric sounds, a Top 40 single is not necessarily a worthy accomplishment but a reason for suspicion.

Factors like these go a long way toward explaining the strange reluctance among some jazz gurus to fully embrace Herbie Hancock. The 58-year-old keyboardist is certainly respected, as he should be: His contributions to the Miles Davis-led quintet that also featured saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams had a huge impact on his peers during the Sixties, and the echoes of his innovations continue to resound today. But to put it bluntly, he doesn't fit the divinity blueprint established by the instrumental idols who preceded him. For one thing, this native of Chicago is still alive--and if he ever fiddled around with hypodermics, the experience didn't lead to the kind of dire consequences that dot the biographies of Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and so many others. Furthermore, he has regularly taken time off from making straightahead jazz to dabble in less tony arenas. Purists can forgive him for writing the scores of such films as 1966's Blow Up and 1986's Round Midnight (for which he earned an Oscar), but they have more difficulty justifying the flat-out bids for pop mega-sales that he churned out during the Seventies and Eighties. Hell, "Rockit," from the 1983 platinum platter Future Shock, was a smash due in large part to a clever video that earned saturation airings on (gasp!) MTV. What self-respecting jazz god would subject himself to that?

The up-and-down quality of Hancock's catalogue plays a part in such figurative hall-of-fame voting as well: His dilettantism is as apt to produce tremendous gaffes like 1994's Dis Is da Drum, an embarrassing nod to hip-hop, as breakthroughs on par with Head Hunters, a 1973 jazz-rock benchmark. But his creative restlessness keeps him out of the ruts that trap all but a few veteran artists. For proof, look no further than the blitzkrieg of Hancock material that's arrived in stores over recent weeks: six releases on three different labels, including The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions, a generous boxed set filled with fine originals and intriguing alternate takes, and Gershwin's World, a much-ballyhooed new album on Verve cut with a roster of all-stars. Not all of the pieces are outstanding, and some are downright tepid, but the best of them show Hancock to be a musician with technical skills that are practically unparalleled. Too bad he doesn't always know what to do with them.

Early on, it was obvious that Hancock possessed uncommon gifts. As noted in the Bob Belden-penned essay that accompanies Sixties Sessions, young Herbie went to Iowa's Grinnell College as an engineering student but soon switched majors to music, and upon returning to Chicago in 1960, he quickly became a sought-after player. Two weeks spent accom-panying saxophonist Coleman Hawkins cemented Hancock's abilities in the mind of a club owner who subsequently mentioned him to trumpeter Donald Byrd after Byrd's regular piano player split town. One rehearsal later, Hancock was a permanent part of Byrd's band--and in two short years, he was in the studio with one of his own.

Following "Three Wishes," a song with Byrd that hadn't previously appeared on a CD, the boxed set's first disc dives into Hancock's initial recording session as the man in charge. His supporting cast for the project, issued in 1962 under the title Takin' Off, is formidable--trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Dexter Gordon and drummer Billy Higgins are on hand--but Hancock shows no evidence of timidity. On "Empty Pockets," he graciously allows Hubbard and Gordon to hold the spotlight before stepping in with a solo that swings naturally, with nary a wasted note. But the selection that truly stands out today, as it did then, is "Watermelon Man," a canny track whose accessibility set the stage for things to come. The song is built upon Higgins's uncomplicated beat, a choppy but exceedingly catchy piano figure from Hancock and a Hubbard-Gordon melodic hook that practically defines cool. "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," a Joe Zawinul tune that charted for Cannonball Adderly in 1967, achieves something like this combination--but "Watermelon Man" did so five years earlier.

"Blind Man, Blind Man," a song from 1963's My Point of View that appears on the second disc here, is a recapitulation of the "Watermelon Man" formula that doesn't taste as sweet as its model. But several other offerings--especially "King Cobra," built upon a spare but sophisticated harmonic progression--exhibit signs of tunesmithing growth that crop up frequently elsewhere in the box. Disc three, dominated by tunes from 1963's Inventions and Dimensions, contains both "Mimosa," an illustration of Hancock's flowering ambition, and "Cantaloupe Island," whose captivating keyboard vamp turned "Cantaloop," a 1994 concoction by Us3 that sports a sizable sample from it, into a boundary-crossing hit. The fourth CD, meanwhile, is highlighted by the delicate but fascinating "Theme From Blow Up" and "Maiden Voyage," a number from the 1965 album of the same name that shows how heavily Hancock and Davis were influencing each other then. "Voyage" is arguably Hancock's finest song.

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