Now 77 years old, jazz legend Herbie Hancock began his career where many jazz musicians hope to end up—in the Miles Davis quartet. But starting at the front meant that Hancock has spent much of his career clearing the path by redefining the way the piano is played, the way a jazz is recorded and sold, and where a jazz artist is allowed to wander.
Ever desirous to explore new versions of his musical self, Hancock is known for music that both appeals to the layman listener and the studied musician, alike. From his early leanings into funk-jazz to his later collaborations with pop artists like Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and even John Mayer, Hancock is always in pursuit of new sounds and rebellious against genre confinements. He even put out a record called The New Standards in the ‘90s that’s comprised of the most impactful pop songs of the 20th century. This ability to crossover has made him one of the best-selling jazz artists of all time.
Hancock is also notable for his spiritual commitment to Buddhism which has guided his career and greater life since the early-’70s. In his memoir, Possibilities, Hancock explores how his practice of Buddhist chanting helped him learn to listen to music in new ways. So with a diverse discography deep enough to get lost in for hours on end, here are 14 must-listen Herbie Hancock songs.
There seems no better place to start than with the single on Hancock’s debut album, Takin’ Off. The seed of this song comes from Hancock’s childhood, when, growing up in Chicago’s South Side, Hancock heard the cry of the “watermelon man” peddling fruit on the street. With that image in mind, the song sounds just like the its title: a playful piano pattern meanders like the hot sidewalk, while the horn lines (courtesy of Freddie Hubbard and Dexter Gordon) dance over the top. It’s youthful and groovy, but the gritty and dissonant parts of the scene—the racism and poverty of early-50’s South Side—can still be heard, as well.
Between 1965-68, Hancock served as the piano player in the Miles Davis Quartet. “Footprints” was recorded during that era and penned by Wayne Shorter, the saxophonist in the group and a man who would become one of Hancock’s lifelong friends and musical collaborators. This recording, from Davis’ time at Columbia, showcases the intense way in which the quartet played and communicated, as well as what a soulful player Hancock was, even back in his early-20s.
It was this song that sent Hancock on the path to convert to Buddhism. In Possibilities, Hancock recalls being at a show in Seattle when he told the band to play this song, and that his bassist Buster Williams, started the song off so play brilliantly that it seemed like magic. When Hancock questioned Buster later about his exceptional playing, Buster told him about Nichiren Buddhism and about chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. From then on, it became a daily practice for Hancock, too. That context adds extra energy and spice to this already squirrelly pseudo-blues.
This song, written for political activist Angela Davis, marks a more experimental period for Hancock and his sextet of the time, Mwandishi. This new phase in Hancock’s career was inspired by a desire to return to cultural roots, the politics of the black nationalism movement, and by Mile Davis’ 1970 fusion jazz release, Bitches Brew. Characterized by intergalactic synth and a repetitive figure underneath the sweeping sound, “Ostinato (Suite for Angela)” is decidedly less melodic than recordings that came before and after it, but rich with energetic conversation among the musicians.
After the disbandment of Mwandishi, which existed and toured for a few years, Herbie chanted for a new direction. A song from Sly and the Family Stone was what came to mind as he meditated. With that, Hancock decided to go in a funkier direction. Hancock proceeded to record Head Hunters, a name which he thought was perfect for a bunch of young men in the seventies—equal parts sex, jungle and jazz headiness. “Chameleon” has an unforgettably wonky stereo bass line (two bass lines recorded together that were slightly different achieved this otherwise unattainable affect) and saucy clavinet punches that just make you want to dance.
Hancock’s 1976 LP Secrets is decidedly smoother than Hancock’s previous forays into funk. Though this record wasn’t nearly as highly regarded as ‘73’s Head Hunters, this tune is an underrated gem. “Gentle Thoughts” encapsulates Hancock’s ability to play outside harmonic perimeters, while also appealing to layman ears. “Gentle Thoughts” brings in ample disco influence, too, which was popular at the time of release.
Back in 2010, Hancock decided to record a collaboration album recorded all over the world. The title track is a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” featuring vocals from P!NK, Seal, India.Arie, Jeff Beck, Kinono No. 1 and Oumou Sangare, the “Songbird of Mali Wassoulou.” This track shows how accepting and encouraging Hancock is of everyone’s individual voices, as he brings seemingly disparate talents from all over the world together on one epiphanic track.
Off Hancock’s 1974 release Thrust, “Butterfly” has a hypnotic melody, unpredictable harmony and a use of effects that is subtle and effective without being too cheesy. In this way, “Butterfly” balances perfectly the things that Hancock does best—catchy ostinatos and keyboard vamps, tasteful soloing and a slow groove that’s in no rush to get anywhere. Hancock’s keys solo in the middle is particularly masterful—taking space, building to his iconic octave shake, then winding down to a sort of space-age simmer.
Let’s roll all the way back to 1965, back to when Hancock was more focused in be-bop. Maiden Voyage was intended to evoke an oceanic atmosphere and “Dolphin Dance” is a great example of Herbie’s special gift for melodies, as well as embodying a concept and sticking with it. The climax of this tune is the solo from tenor player George Coleman that surfs the melancholy, and the simple response from Hancock during his solo.
“Cantaloupe Island” echoes some of the elements—a groovy piano line, in-the-pocket rhythm section, melody in the horns—that made “Watermelon Man” so great, but then reinvents them for this new premise. Unlike “Watermelon Man,” “Cantaloupe Island” seems a bit boozier, a little bit more like piña coladas on the beach. “Cantaloupe Island” also features Freddie Hubbard playing the melody on the trumpet, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. In 1964, this was the band Hancock recorded with on the side while he was still performing with the Miles Davis Quartet.
In 2007, Hancock released River: The Joni Letters in tribute to Joni Mitchell’s songbook. For it, Hancock chose some lesser-known gems of Mitchell’s, including this track that recounts the miraculous story of how Mitchell’s parents met during World War II. Mitchell’s wizened voice is the perfect complement to Hancock’s gorgeous, meditative playing. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter is also all over the album, still a close musical confidante of Hancock’s after more than 40 years.
“Joanna’s Theme” off Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s 1997 duo album 1+1 is an evolving, impressionistic journey that really reflects Herbie’s beginnings as a classical pianist and his sweeping virtuosity on the instrument. In fact, Hancock was a classical prodigy: At age 11 he won a contest and played a Mozart concerto with the Chicago Symphony. Of the plethora of recordings of Shorter and Hancock, this is one of the most incandescent.
Also off 1965’s Maiden Voyage, this tune is uniquely Herbie’s—one built on a frequently-used interval of his, the perfect fourth. This interval accounts for the open, sound of the piano and angularity of his melodic lines. Though the song was written in attempts to capture the grandeur of a ship’s first voyage, it’s deliciously understated. The song has become a standard in jazz repertoire and has been covered numerous times by artists like Toto, Phish and Robert Glasper.
Let’s end where we started, approximately. Though written more than ten years earlier, Hancock re-recorded “Watermelon Man” for 1973’s Head Hunters at the suggestion of drummer Harvey Mason. The reimagined version is even more creative than the first, beginning with an inspired introduction played on glass bottles. The idea was from percussionist Bill Summers, who had studied Hindewhu (a form of African Pygmy music) and wanted to incorporate it into the recording. In the end, the update of “Watermelon Man” is quintessential Hancock listening. This version is also a great symbol for Hancock himself—a creative soul that remains open to growth and adventure, all the while never losing his infectious groove.