Over the past few months, The New York Times has asked experts to answer the question, What would you play a friend to make them fall in love with jazz? We’ve explored artists like Ornette Coleman and Mary Lou Williams, and styles ranging from bebop to modern.
Now, we’re turning to Herbie Hancock, the groundbreaking pianist and composer who emerged in jazz as something of a prodigy. At age 11, Hancock — who listened to classical music at the behest of his mother — played Mozart’s D major Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Three years later, he became interested in jazz after seeing a classmate play it on the piano. He eventually gigged around Chicago during summer breaks from college, which led to his working with the tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins in 1960. His career took off after the trumpeter Donald Byrd asked Hancock to play in his quintet. He moved to New York City and in 1962 released his debut album, “Takin’ Off,” on Blue Note Records.
That would have been a fine enough existence, but in 1963, his life changed when the trumpeter Miles Davis — the world’s biggest jazz musician — brought Hancock into the fold to be a member of his band, the Second Great Quintet. Alongside Davis, the bassist Ron Carter, the drummer Tony Williams and the saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Hancock would become a superstar, lending his melodic chords to several cornerstone albums in Davis’s discography. He left the band in 1968 and started tinkering with spacier sounds. By the early ’70s, Hancock had all but abandoned jazz for funk and ambient textures, and released challenging music that didn’t fit one box in particular. In 1973, he released his biggest album, “Head Hunters,” a propulsive funk odyssey that went platinum and led to Hancock playing to huge crowds.
Now 60 years into his artistic trajectory, Hancock is still adventurous, still embracing new avenues and working with younger artists who are just as daring. Below, we asked 11 musicians, writers and critics to share their favorite Hancock songs. Enjoy listening to their choices, check out the playlist at the bottom of the article, and be sure to leave your own favorites in the comments.
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Julius Rodriguez, musician
If I had to pick only one song to listen to for the rest of eternity, “Textures” would be it. It’s not the flashiest or most technically/pianistically complicated performance, but it grooves in a way Herbie Hancock alone can. That is because it is Herbie Hancock alone! Herbie’s 1980 LP “Mr. Hands” always interested me because he took a fascinating approach to crafting it: Every track has a different and specific personnel of musicians. Each track feels like the musicians were handpicked to best represent each musical idea. But then you get to “Textures,” which only credits one musician — Herbie Hancock. From acoustic piano, to all sorts of keyboards and synthesizers to create bass lines and orchestrations, to programming the drums, every sound you hear was created by his own hands. This to me feels like the purest insight into the mind of a genius.
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Salami Rose Joe Louis, musician and producer
The first time I heard “Actual Proof” I was convinced it was made by time travelers, possibly from the year 2300. I had never heard anything like it. It has the hypnotic effect of being so freaky and funky and the groove so locked into warp speed. Yet it’s deeply fluid and meditative at the same time. This track encapsulates everything I admire about Herbie’s work: his forward thinking and explorative sound, his unique harmonic and melodic choices, his genius understanding of rhythm and the way he can converse with it in a song, his improvisation and flow, and his ability to make an absolute ripper of a tune that you can groove to with effortless joy. But behind the scenes, the music is incredibly challenging and innovative rhythmically and harmonically.
Herbie’s Rhodes solo on this is one of my favorite solos. It is so creative and expressive and playful and feels like a deep conversation with the other players. In general this recording embodies a time when a group of players were on some next level, listening to one another, exploring new sounds, pushing one another to stretch. It is a beautiful piece of history (even though I am still half convinced it is from the future).
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Shannon J. Effinger, writer
“Maiden Voyage” first crossed my path while I was in high school. It was an unexpected gift from my neighbor, a World War II Navy vet and landlord who would regale me with stories about the musicians he rented rooms to — Miles, Billie, Prez, Dizzy. All I could hear then, and still hear now, are its endless possibilities.
The album was recorded in one day — March 17, 1965 — for Hancock’s fifth studio release, after he enlisted Ron Carter, Tony Williams and the saxophonist George Coleman, along with the young trumpet titan Freddie Hubbard. Equal to his prowess and touch for the piano, Hancock is one of this music’s greatest shape-shifters, as he has keenly adapted and created within the industry’s ever-changing tides. Just as jazz was transitioning from individual-led to ensemble-driven, Hancock rendered several original compositions that any jazz group must cut its teeth on. And the title track to “Maiden Voyage,” from its palpable opening vamp to the unbridled freedom he builds, gives each player his respective moment to shine.
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Damon Locks, musician and visual artist
“Hornets” is musical archaeology. It is simultaneously resolute, absurd, deeply steeped in tradition yet stretching wildly into a future unknown. It asks questions about how we got here and where we are going. It’s cinematic, standing outside an art opening but also a sweaty D.J. set. “Hornets” is Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” for the Vietnam War era. It’s as much a song for today as it was in 1973 (when it was released). “Hornets” is the harbinger of ’80s-era African Head Charge and ’90s-era Wu-Tang Clan. It’s a cellphone call on the subway with no headphones. “Hornets” has always been a timeless classic that, like life, can be propulsive, confounding, intimidating and groovy. And just when you think you know what is happening, the kazoos come back in.
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Stephen (Thundercat) Bruner, musician
The first time I heard Herbie Hancock’s “4 A.M.,” I was with my friend Brandon Coleman. I remember we were driving. We went to Amoeba Music. We were very much into finding out where a lot of our favorite music came from, going in many different directions. We’d pick up Jaco Pastorius’s music, Weather Report, and all kinds of stuff. And Brandon really loved Herbie Hancock.
I remember we heard “4 A.M.” in the car together and we both knew that we had to learn that song. At some point in the night, I remember we got back to his crib, and we tried to sit there and play through it a bit. I think we even tried to record it one time to see what it would be. And it was cool, man. We felt like it was such an amazing tune. It was the feeling of hearing it at the time, for both of us, that was very euphoric. To this day, it’s still one of my favorite Herbie tunes.
It’s one of those moments that made us wonder, “Wow, these guys. Was this indicative of them being up at 4 a.m. and this is what happened with them?” It even made me want to just stay up till 4 a.m. in life in general, just to see where things would take me.
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Patrice Rushen, musician
When asked recently about my favorite composition of Herbie Hancock, I actually found the question very difficult to answer. But “Speak Like a Child” immediately caught my attention from the moment that I first heard it. I never forgot the feeling of that “first listening.” The mood and orchestration of the piece are beautiful. The recording is beautiful. But the special attraction for me, beyond these qualities, are Herbie’s touch on the piano, his sound and the lyricism of his playing. This track offers images of innocence, clarity, imagination and mastery. Each player is listening.
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Nicole Sweeney, radio host
“Butterfly” is a blend of beauty, funk and groove from Herbie Hancock’s 1974 album “Thrust” with his band the Headhunters. The notes start crawling toward your soul, tickling every intricate part like a caterpillar on your forearm. Great leaders know how to get the best out of people, and Herbie does just that while “hanging” in the cut until the 4:30 mark, where he starts to shed his “cocoon” and let his instrument become the star of the song. This is where you feel a transition happening, as the music takes on another life; wings are sprouting, colors floating, as you are sent to another stratosphere. By the 7:00 mark, you experience a beautiful “Butterfly” that has taken off, with a flair and flutter that takes your breath away. By the 9:10 mark, you are reminded of the beautiful beginning, as Herbie always takes you on a magical, musical ride that you never want to get off of.
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David Renard, Times senior editor
I struggle to understand the listeners who didn’t like “Head Hunters.” I know they were out there — a 1976 New York Times review of a concert that covered Hancock’s career to date said the show “made a strong case for the purists” who “lament the tendency of talented musicians to ‘sell out’ in the direction of disco‐funk.” (Sidebar: Hancock had left a big enough impression on jazz to warrant a retrospective concert 47 years ago.) I guess if you’re going to sell out, do it with a Minimoog bass line as nasty as the one that sets off “Chameleon,” pilot an ARP synthesizer into space and move more than a million copies of a forward-looking jazz-funk LP. A chameleon had changed, and not everyone could see it, or in this case hear it.
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Marcus J. Moore, jazz writer
Following a five-year stint in Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet (my favorite band of any genre ever), Herbie Hancock released “The Prisoner” in 1969 as a partial tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was shot and killed the year before. In turn, the title track feels precarious, teetering between darkness and light. Against triumphant horns and a swinging backbeat played by the drummer Albert (Tootie) Heath, Hancock launches into it with murky electric piano chords, creating this alluring juxtaposition. On purpose, the song runs hot and cool, conveying attitudes of the oppressed and the oppressor, “the feeling of fire in violence” and the “feeling of water in Dr. King,” as the album’s liner notes explain. Toward the end, Hancock — on acoustic piano — brightens the composition with radiant chords while the horns grow darker. And that’s why it’s one of my favorite songs: Equally soothing and intense, “The Prisoner” imparts the aura of social constraint, of being free yet confined to an apparatus not built for you.
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Timmhotep Aku, culture worker
To innovate is to transgress. A lifetime of music appreciation has taught me this lesson. Herbie Hancock taught me this lesson with “Rockit.”
When the single was first released in 1983 I was only a toddler. But it was a hit, and even as it slipped off the charts it seeped into the fabric of my world so that a grade-school me recognized it when I heard it at Kings Plaza Mall and bugged out when I saw its bizarre video on MTV or New York Hot Tracks.
This was one of the only times I heard the scratching sounds I knew from rap records in a “mainstream” context. Though I was young, I could perceive the difference between our thing in the hood and what was considered “pop” and ready for prime time. Herbie Hancock, assisted by the deft turntablism of Grandmixer DXT, not only subverted the idea of what kind of music a jazz pianist could make but also where sounds born in the ghetto could be played. Future shock for real.
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Giovanni Russonello, Times jazz critic
At one point in his memoir, Hancock offers up an appealing idea: “Improvisation — being truly in the moment — means exploring what you don’t know.” Realize that this comes from someone who loves nothing more than to figure out how stuff works. As a kid, Hancock was always deconstructing radios and toys, and he taught himself jazz by a similar method: dissecting what he heard on albums, down to the granule, and recreating it. (You’ve seen this clip, right?) In tunes like “Dolphin Dance,” a Hancock composition-turned-jazz standard, these two impulses — attention to detail, and affinity for mystery — don’t feel at all opposed. There’s a complex science to this piece, but plenty of open space for the spirit to come in, too. Hancock first recorded it for “Maiden Voyage,” an LP whose freely floating title track lingers on single chords for long passages, turning harmonies into environs. But “Dolphin Dance” takes a different route toward no-resolution: The chords move around constantly, coloring the main melodic motif with different shades and feelings. Hear him play the tune alone, at a 1984 concert in Switzerland — pausing every so often to investigate and unravel a different chord, or refitting a woozy phrase into a swaggering groove — and you see what this is all about: The greater the detail, the more the mystery.