Saturday, October 9, 2010

Herbie Hancock – A Jump Ahead

© -Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Before he became a sizzling Jazz-Rock Fusion superstar for Warner Bros. and Columbia Records during the 1970s [and beyond], pianist-composer Herbie Hancock made seven LPs under his own name for Blue Note Records in the 1960s.

A few of these albums were hugely successful, especially for someone like Herbie, who during the 1960s was still primarily a Jazz musician and who was largely unknown to the greater public.

That lack of recognition would begin to change almost immediately with Herbie’s first LP for Blue Note – Takin’ Off - which contained the commercial hit tune – Watermelon Man. [conguero/band leader Mongo Santamaria also recorded a very successful version of the song].

The year was 1962, which was also a seminal year for Herbie as he joined the Miles Davis quintet along with Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Ron Carter on bassist and drummer Tony Williams. This was to be Miles’ last “classic” Jazz quintet before he moved on to add more Rock ‘n Roll elements to his music along with a host of electronic instruments as these made their appearance in the late 1960s.

Herbie’s additional Blue Note LP’s were to all have at least one horn fronting a rhythm section, with one exception, an album he recorded in August 1963 that almost went unnoticed.

Entitled Inventions and Dimensions, it is a piano-bass-drums trio album although Osvaldo “Chihuahua” Martinez plays Latin percussion on all but one track.

The album marked the first time that Herbie had ever worked with bassist Paul Chambers and, for many of us, it was the first chance to hear Willie Bobo play a Jazz drum kit. Throughout most of his career, Willie was primarily known as a timbales player and Latin percussionist

As Nat Hentoff explains in his liner notes to the original LP, Inventions and Dimensions gets it title

“… [from the fact that it] reflects Hancock's increasing preoccupation with releasing himself from what he terms the customary jazz ‘assumptions.’ Usually, he explains, ‘you assume there'll be chords on which to base your improvisations and you assume most of the time that the playing will be in 4/4 and that the bass will automatically walk. On this date, I told the musicians not to assume anything except for a few rules I set for each piece, and every time those rules were different. As it happened, Paul Chambers did often play a walking or a recurring rhythm, but that was because he wanted to play that way. I didn't suggest it, and he could have done whatever he wanted. There were no specific chord change on any of the tunes except Mimosa, nor did any of the tunes have a melody to begin with.’”

The musical departure inherent in this last sentence is what caught my ear when I first heard the album.

But the music on this recording is no exercise in what came to be known as Free Jazz in the sense of doing away with all musical rules and conventions.

According to Bob Belden in his insert notes Herbie Hancock: The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions

“On August 30, 1963, Herbie went to Englewood Cliffs to record another Blue Note album. Instead of the typical Blue Note dates he was creating, Herbie sought to do something different, something that reflected what he felt about his playing at the time. Since he had been on the road steadily since May, he may not have had enough time to write complex new material. His associations with more open musicians may have planted the seed of adventure, but the confidence of being Miles Davis's pianist had a lot to do with Herbie's next album.”

To my ears, what is so compelling about this recording is best exemplified in the track entitled A Jump Ahead, which we have used as the soundtrack to the video tribute to Herbie’s Blue Note years located at the end of this piece.

As Herbie denotes above in the Nat Hentoff quotation, A Jump Ahead does not have a conventional melody or theme.

Instead, the tune gets its structure from a four-bar ostinato played by bassist Paul Chambers.

An ostinato is a short melody pattern that is constantly repeated in the same part at the same pitch.

Nat Hentoff’s notes contain this further elabaoration:

“The rule which Hancock set for A Jump Ahead was for Paul Chambers to select an introductory four-bar pedal tone. ‘Then there come sixteen bars of time,’ Hancock points out, ‘in which what I improvise is based on the pedal tone Paul played during the first four bars. Another four-bar break follows, for which Paul selects another note. I never knew what Paul would play, and that's how this one got titled. He was always a jump ahead. Incidentally, since any one note can be related to all twelve tones on the keyboard, I had complete freedom to utilize Paul's pedal notes any way I wanted to. Those notes acted as a note in a chord, but I formed the chords in my own way. Again, there was no preconceived melody, and the harmony came from the notes Paul chose.’”

Structurally, A Jump Ahead is what may be referred to as tonal music.

And in tonal music, a pedal tone is a sustained tone, played typically in the bass. Sometimes called a pedal point, a pedal tone is a non-chord tone.

The term “pedal tone” comes from the organ’s ability to sustain a note indefinitely using the pedal keyboard which is played by the feet; as such, the organist can hold down a pedal point for lengthy periods while both hands perform higher-register music on the manual keyboards.

In effect, Chambers acts like the organ pedal keyboard while Herbie plays over it using both hands on the piano keyboard.

One other point that may be of interest is Willie Bobo’s use of very thick/heavy drumsticks that really serve to crackle & pop the snare drum and crash the cymbals. Such large sticks take great control and using them masterfully,Willie generates tremendous swing on this six-and-a-half minute cut.

Paul’s four-bar ostinato can be heard at the outset of the track, again at 18 seconds, and again at 35 and 53 seconds and so on.

Each time it is followed by a 16-bar improvisation that Herbie conceives based on the pedal tone that Paul selects.

In effect, A Jump Ahead is the Jazz equivalent of the geometric head-start in which one never catches-up.

To my ears, Herbie’s solo really hits its stride on A Jump Ahead at around the 2:42 mark [which Willie conveniently underscores with a cymbal crash!] and just soars thereafter.

See what you think.