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Herbie Hancock- Empyrean Islands (1964)

Updated: May 9

Herbie Hancock - Empyrean Isles

(Blue Note Records)

Released on November 1964

Recorded June 1964

Chicago native Herbie Hancock began his early musical training by playing classical music and even performed with the Chicago Symphony at the age of 11. Influenced by the playing of George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Clare Fisher, and Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock desired to learn jazz. He then hooked up with teacher Chris Anderson and learned a great deal about jazz harmony. Hancock then attended Grinnell College in Iowa and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and music. He then began working with heavyweights like Coleman Hawkins, Donald Byrd, Phil Woods, and Oliver Nelson in the early 1960s. In 1963, Hancock signed a deal with Blue Note Records to release his debut, Taking Off, which included the funky crossover hit "Watermelon Man."

Late in 1963, Hancock joined Miles Davis for what would emerge as Miles Davis' "Second Great Quintet" (1964-1969) with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter and a 17-year-old drummer named Tony Williams. Together the group redefined the possibilities of jazz by pushing the boundaries of rhythmic interplay while exploring elements of "free jazz" without completely adopting the style.

In November of 1964, Hancock released one of his most celebrated works Empyrean Isles with an ensemble that included his new Miles Davis bandmates, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Playing cornet (it's like a trumpet) was the masterful Freddie Hubbard (sorry, Miles), one of the most gifted and creative performers on the scene.

What is an Empyrean Isles, you ask? I did. Apparently, in ancient cosmologies, the Empyrean was the place in the highest heaven, which was supposed to be occupied by the element of fire. So I guess an Empyrean Isle is a fiery heavenly island. A serious name for a serious album! As with Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch, which also included Tony Williams and Freddie Hubbard, the players' creativity and connectivity made this album a musical success. Included in that are the spirit of youthfulness and a sense of musical, personal discovery that can be felt organically, a feeling that cannot be defined by traditional analysis. During the making of the record, Williams was only 19, Hancock was 24, Hubbard was 26, and Carter was 27.

Following the release of Empyrean, Hancock continued to create classic acoustic jazz recordings before shifting into some serious electric fusion and funk in the 1970s. He even had an unlikely instrumental pop hit in 1983 with the tune "Rockit." Hancock never totally abandoned traditional jazz and would return to the idiom frequently. Herbie Hancock is a masterful, sound scientist who has remained relevant for over six decades.

Side 1

(+ means "recommended track" and * means released as a single)

Track 1- “One Finger Snap” Try snapping one finger to this song. You can't because it's too fast. The great Freddie Hubbard instantly showcases his absolute brilliance during the first solos. Keep in mind that Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams came together and were most associated with Miles Davis, whose style was often more characterized by shorter phrases and an often more subtle fragmented conversational approach, but Hubbard comes out of the gate with energy and excitement that seems almost to contrast the playing style of Miles Davis. Within the first two minutes, Hubbard sets the overall spirit of the album, and the rhythm section is instantly responsive.

Hancock then counters with his improvisation against Carter's Williams' rhythmic conversation. Hubbard then reenters before Tony Williams unleashes a drum solo in which he absolutely attacks the drumset. His approach throughout is incredibly skillful and unique but is also so forceful and primal that it offers a sense of discovery and youthful exuberance. (+)

Track 2- “Oliloqui Valley” According to The Wire, "Oliloqui Valley" is not about geographic location but rather an internal voyage. These themes of journeying and subjective revelation are echoed in the title. Excellent title, Herbie. The performance begins with a groovy bass pattern morphing in and out of more traditional swing rhythms. Hancock and Hubbard's play-inspired solos, and the dream team of Carter and Williams manipulated jazz swing feels in a way that never sounds formulaic.

On this track, Ron Carter (the most recorded jazz bassist of all time) also gets his moment to solo, and he takes some exciting risks by displaying double stops (chorded fragments), string bends, and out-of-tempo sequences. After searching for the right notes, he brings the group back in by playing the bass pattern from the introduction. On "Oliloqui Valley," the listeners are passengers on this inspired internal voyage.

Side 2

Track 1- “Cantaloupe Island” I do not know if Cantaloupe Island is a real place. I hate melons of all kinds, but I like this tune, and so do many others! "Cantaloupe Island" has become a jazz classic and has been covered by many artists, including Freddie Hubbard and Donald Byrd; it has also been sampled in numerous hip-hop songs, including Us3's "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)" and Kendrick Lamar's "Blow My High (Members Only)."It is the most recognizable track on the album. The tune offers a slow, light groove-based funk played over a 16-bar pattern (It's repetitive). Compared to the other three tracks on the record, it's simplistic but grooves, so it works. Blue Note Records often looked for their artist to record a song or two that could serve as a crossover hit, and "Cantaloupe Island" is it. (*+)

Track 2- “The Egg” is a full-out 14-minute-long musical exploration that makes the listener question if they still want to be on Empyrean Isles or if they would prefer to swim ashore. Honestly, what drugs did the band take on Cantaloupe Island to then lay the "Egg?" Do I still even want an omelet? All jokes aside, the "Egg" showcases the tune playing in a "free" jazz idiom, so anything goes. The music begins with a repetitive piano vamp played on top of a military-sounding drum beat. Hubbard soars over the top. Then Herbie plays some weird stuff, and around five minutes in, Ron Carter is left alone to play some experimental bowed bass. It's as if a monster hatched from "the egg." Hancock counters with a piano solo before the group suggests more traditional swing rhythms and elements, followed by more breakdowns and soundscapes. Not really sure "The Egg" is good. It may have been a little spoiled, but it sure tastes (and sounds) interesting.

In Conclusion:

Empyrean Isles is a brilliant album made by a brilliant musician with a rhythm section that would redefine jazz through their works with Miles Davis. Additionally, Freddie Hubbard was an absolute technician on the cornet and the trumpet. Hearing an early recording of Miles Davis' classic rhythm section without Miles Davis is fascinating.

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