Jazz: King of cantaloupe island

He's been around for ever and he hasn't changed a bit. Or has he? Two Herbie Hancock packages tell two tales.
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The Independent Culture
NOTHING DEMONSTRATES changing priorities in the production and marketing of jazz records quite like the concurrent release of two sets - one new, one old - by the famous US pianist Herbie Hancock. Hancock's new album for Verve, Gershwin's World, should really win some sort of marketing award for the assiduousness with which it seeks to address the disparate sections of what its label's execs probably refer to as the jazz demographic. It is not so much a belt-and-braces approach to targeting consumers as a comprehensive survey of the whole catalogue of trouser-supporting devices.

There is the Big Concept (the music of George Gershwin), the tie-in event (Gershwin's centennial), and big-name guest stars from the pop and classical worlds (vocal cameos from Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Kathleen Battle). As if that were not enough, the album is beefed up further with appearances by other jazz stars (Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter and a host of lesser names), plus classical-crossover encounters with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. And despite the title, Gershwin is not the end of it, for Hancock also brings in compositions by WC Handy, Duke Ellington, and a movement from Ravel's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G.

By rights, Gershwin's World should sound awful. Surprisingly, it is actually rather good, and probably better than Hancock's last proper solo album, The New Standard, in which his jazz super-group battered helpless pop tunes by the likes of Phil Collins, Kurt Cobain and Prince into a late- boppish pulp so brutally that even their parents must have failed to recognise them afterwards.

This time around, Joni Mitchell's most committed fans will struggle to identify her from the gorgeous, smoky, smeary and impeccably jazzy voice that decorates "The Man I Love" and "Summertime". Suffice to say, it is a long way from "Big Yellow Taxi". There is no mistaking Stevie Wonder on "St Louis Blues", however, not with that harmonica, and a bravura vocal that makes WC Handy's old warhorse bend to the tune of some of Wonder's own great songs from years gone by. Even the orchestral interludes are moving as well as tasteful, and throughout, Hancock's chromatically inclined piano style sounds great, whether in swinging or meditative mode. But if the album is to be counted a success, one hesitates to imagine what the theme of the next one will be, and who else will be co-opted for it. A set of Oasis hits with Whitney Houston and the Vienna Boys Choir?

For the six original albums which, together with some out-takes and sessions for other artists, make up the six-CD box-set of Herbie Hancock: The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions (Blue Note), there isn't a choir or a symphony orchestra in sight. Instead, it is just the precociously gifted Herbie (only 22 when he recorded Taking Off in 1962), and a selection from the label's familiar repertory of musicians, devolved into quartets, quintets and up. The themes are almost all Hancock originals, and their treatment reflects the changing fashions in jazz from 1962-69, ranging from hard bop (although Herbie was always a bit of a softie at heart) to soul-jazz to flirtations with free-form and funk.

It is not all great, and with the chronology of the albums interrupted by the alternate takes and session-tracks for Donald Byrd, Jackie McLean and Bobby Hutcherson, the box-set may be less musically satisfying than listening to the originals in sequence, but mostly, it is wonderful stuff. Hancock was always as much of a composer as a soloist, and great tunes like the big hit "Watermelon Man", "Cantaloupe Island" (the original of US3's done-to-death "Cantaloop" - the theme music from TV's Late Review and much else) and every jobbing jazz group's favourite, "Dolphin Dance", still remain superbly supple grooves. There are also welcome rarities such as the theme from Antonioni's film Blow Up, from 1967.

And unlike Gershwin's World , the albums from the box-set were mostly recorded in a day, with a prior day for rehearsals - regarded as a luxury at the time. Produced by Blue Note's co-founder Alfred Lion, and engineered by Rudy Van Gelder at his home studio in New Jersey, where they were recorded direct to two-track stereo without any fiddling about with mixing or equalisation, the old tracks still sound better than the new ones. For jazz - at least as regards music rather than marketing - time's arrow really does seem to be pointing backwards.