Trombonist Conrad Herwig has collected three Grammy nominations by Latinizing the music of important jazz modernists, beginning with John Coltrane and following with Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter. No surprise, then, that he’s at it again with The Latin Side of Herbie Hancock. Recorded live at New York’s Blue Note, his septet is joined here by special guests Randy Brecker on trumpet and Herwig’s sometime boss Eddie Palmieri on piano.
The compositions chosen for new arrangements by Herwig and/or his pianist, Bill O’Connell, all come from two early periods in Hancock’s career: his 1960s shuttling between Davis’ “second great quintet” and his own Blue Note recordings, and two big-selling mid-’70s fusion efforts with the Headhunters. Three pieces originated on Hancock’s groundbreaking Empyrean Isles, with “Oliloqui Valley” (featuring Palmieri) and “One Finger Snap” kicking things off, the latter an uptempo burner fueled by strong work from Herwig, O’Connell, trumpeter Mike Rodriguez and percussionist Pedro Martinez. Two others from the 1974 album Thrust follow close behind: “Butterfly” floats on a soulful, loping bass clarinet solo by Craig Handy (who later contributes essential flute work to “Maiden Voyage”) and nicely crafted lyricism from trumpeter Rodriguez. Bassist Ruben Rodriguez switches to his electric instrument so that he and drummer Robby Ameen can make like Paul Jackson and Mike Clark on the funky “Actual Proof,” which provokes the hottest of Brecker’s several fiery solos.
Brecker and Herwig also kick up some serious sparks jamming on “The Sorcerer.” But ultimately everything builds toward Palmieri rejoining the others to provide masterful comping and soloing on the two closers, “Cantaloupe Island” and “Watermelon Man.” Mongo Santamaria famously Latinized “Watermelon Man” in 1963, between Hancock’s own two very different recorded versions of it. Palmieri and the interplay of the horns on this adventurous new arrangement make it-and this album-another keeper.