A Huge Hunk o’ Herbie

SiriusXM radio devotes a weekend to Hancock’s career in jazz

SiriusXM satellite radio recently completed its four-day Herbie Hancock Radio special. It was a success. Beginning the morning of Friday, April 27, the network turned over its Real Jazz station to playing nothing but Herbie Hancock recordings. Hancock as group leader, as a sideman, with ensembles and solo—he was heard on famous recordings and on near-forgotten tracks, on electric keyboards and on the concert grand. The special was inspirational for its range of recordings and for the stunningly high level of musicianship heard throughout the weekend.

From the introductory announcement, it was clear that the Real Jazz station programmers would have their work cut out for them. A fluid voice called Hancock a “pure jazz artist” who is “also a bona fide rock star.” Is that possible? And could a traditional jazz radio format really do justice to the many parts of Hancock’s career? Short answer: Yes.

For SiriusXM, giving an existing channel a tightly focused four-day special such as this is different than creating a completely new outlet for one of their Limited Engagements. Because regular listeners to the Real Jazz station have expectations about the format, to make radical programming shifts would be risky. This special was successful in representing numerous works and styles of Herbie Hancock while still maintaining the established personality of the station.

Real Jazz was able to showcase both the diversity of this artist’s career and not alienate regular listeners by leaning a bit more toward Hancock’s traditional jazz selections during the daytime hours and letting the electronics flow a little more heavily during the night. There were exceptions to this, of course, and the station must be given credit for being willing to stretch the boundaries of its regular programming. Even so, Hancock’s Blue Note catalog as a group leader got a solid workout during the day, as did his recordings as sideman.

Announcements concerning the music were kept to a bare minimum, as is usual with the Real Jazz station. This was a smart decision. If listeners wanted to dive more deeply into a specific selection, they could easily see what was playing by looking at their radio and then search the web for information on the track, including the name of the album, the year of recording and featured players. Occasionally, guests such as Chick Corea and Terence Blanchard briefly introduced specific selections.

For those wanting a live announcer as a guide to the music, bassist Marcus Miller offered “Electric Herbie,” a self-explanatory program that aired twice a day, during which Miller would discuss the tracks being played. The station’s long running “Blue Note Hour” fit perfectly with the focused programming by offering music from Hancock’s tenure with that label, as chosen and discussed by host Bruce Lundvall. Two live programs also fit this Special Engagement weekend—Wayne Shorter’s performance at Lincoln Center had natural links to Hancock, as did Ron Carter’s 75th birthday concert, which even featured Hancock as a performer.

And while these self-contained programs offered some commentary and context, Herbie Hancock Radio was nearly four days of uninterrupted music. Credit must be given to station programmers for not taking tempting short cuts on this project. With just under 90 hours to fill, it would have been easy to re-run blocks of programming, taking a four-hour set of music from one part of the day, for example, and re-running it 12 hours later. This never happened. While individual tracks such as “Watermelon Man,” “Chameleon” and “Rockit” were of course repeated, the station did not repeat programming except for “The Blue Note Hour” and the two concerts.

There were only one or two parts of Hancock’s career that were downplayed, if not sidestepped completely. For example, I don’t recall hearing any tracks from the two overtly disco LPs, Feets Don’t Fail Me Now and Monster. At another end of Hancock’s catalog, a piece such as the 20-minute “Hornets” was aired only in the middle of the night, at least in its full version. Both decisions are understandable for the Real Jazz station format, if for very different reasons.

Because this special often showcased Hancock as a sideman on other artists’ albums, it would have been easy to let this weekend be overly tilted to his days with Miles Davis. But balance was maintained here as well. Miles’ second great quintet was only occasionally heard, and it was not until deep into the weekend that the lengthy “Right Off” was heard in its entirety late one night. Sparse use of these Miles tracks kept the focus firmly on Hancock himself, which made sense.

Listening to some of the selections was like reconnecting with an old friend, and I heard some things from this man’s career that I admittedly had missed. The station and its programmers should be pleased. And as much as I applaud the outcome, here are two suggestions I would like the station to consider for future endeavors dedicated to a featured artist:

* Because there are no on-air announcements about most of the selections being played, ongoing track by track information could be offered at the SiriusXM Real Jazz channel page. This could be constantly updated, much like the Twitter feeds that are posted on some of the other station pages. The effort would be labor intensive, to be sure, but would provide useful information for both the uninitiated and the long-time follower.

* As mentioned, the weekend featured two recent concerts focusing on Hancock’s colleagues Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter, and both were great. But I also wanted to hear some unreleased concerts by Hancock himself from varying points of his career. If these tapes are not available for broadcast because of performance rights, some of Hancock’s import-only live discs could be played as concert sets, such as 1977’s double LP Flood (available only in Japan) or the double live LP recorded around the time of Sextant, both on CBS Records.

A concert could easily be recreated by using the two live double LPs issued from the 1978 tour featuring Hancock and Chick Corea, both on concert grand pianos. This era was a much publicized return to the acoustic piano for both performers and was not much represented during the weekend. These are not complaints, of course, but are suggestions from a listener.

The Herbie Hancock Radio special was a worthy tribute. Real Jazz and SiriusXM should be congratulated for successfully presenting the unique career of this deserving musician. It could easily have come across as a promotion for his new releases or a self-congratulatory weekend over his Grammy-winning Joni Letters album and more recent Imagine Project CD. This never happened. The focus was on Hancock’s ability to create a wide variety of jazz music in multiple settings. And even though Herbie Hancock Radio concluded last week, I still have his albums sitting right by my turntable as I continue to rediscover his music.

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