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Herbie Hancock: Gershwin’s World

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Following on the heels of the largely disappointing Return of the Headhunters-a lightweight and strangely static funk outing that failed to live up to the hype-Gershwin’s World represents a return to respectability for Hancock. It is by far the best thing he’s done since joining the Verve roster in 1995. Obviously pleased with the outcome of this highly ambitious, star-studded project, Verve is laying on the hype pretty thick, calling this “one of the most significant jazz recordings of the decade.” This time, believe the hype.

More than just another in the seemingly endless series of songbooks cranked out by the Verve marketing machine, Gershwin’s World could just as easily have been called Hancock’s World. His stamp is that strong on these familiar Gershwin vehicles.

Hancock sets the tone for this far-reaching project with an opening 55 second “Overture,” a wholly unique take on “Fascinating Rhythm” with piano dancing on top of a churning African undercurrent of djembe, talking drum and a battery of percussion.

On a depthful reading of “The Man I Love,” Joni Mitchell-whom I barely recognized, even after checking the musician credits and confirming that it was indeed her-conveys a smoky sensuality with huskier tones and jazzier phrasing than I ever remembered from her; more reminiscent of a Julie London or Chris Connor than the soprano hippie chick who wrote the “Woodstock” anthem. Mitchell returns for an equally affecting take on “Summertime,” featuring more wonderous harmonica playing by Stevie and supple soprano sax commentary by Shorter.

I’m not sure what W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” has to do with Gershwin, but hearing Stevie Wonder’s soaring, majestic vocals and soulful harmonica work on this seriously funky rendition, who can complain? Hancock doubles on piano and goes to church on Hammond B-3 organ (Yeah! Let’s hear more of that in the future, Herbie). The song runs a little long, perhaps. But when the great Stevie says, “Can I play?,” even the great Herbie can’t say no.

Hancock’s dark arrangement of “Here Come de Honey Man,” with a front line of trumpeter Eddie Henderson, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett and tenor saxophonist James Carter blending on a menacing reharmonization of the theme, is even more evocative than Gil Evans’ version for Miles Davis on Porgy & Bess. The three great horn players also appear on a sinister, smoldering version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Chick Corea guests on a jaunty two-piano romp on stridemaster James P. Johnson’s “Blueberry Rhyme.” To include this piece simply because Johnson was a colleague is a bit of a conceptual stretch, but to hear these two masters reprise their chemistry from 1978’s live encounter, An Evening With (Columbia/Legacy), is a real treat.

Hancock lets his fingers fly on a quartet rendition of “Cotton Tail” (Duke Ellington based his composition on Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”). This surging vehicle rekindles the Miles quintet magic between Herbie and Wayne, with Terri Lyne Carrington playing Tony Williams to Ira Coleman’s Ron Carter. Shorter’s furious tenor solo here-a real vindication-spurs Hancock on to some exhilarating pianistic heights. He takes a more reflective, harmonically probing approach on “Prelude in C# Minor,” a moody soundscape enhanced by the haunting wordless vocals of opera star Kathleen Battle.

And as if that weren’t ambitious enough, Hancock also performs two very moving suites with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra-Gershwin’s “Lullaby” and “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G, 2nd Movement” by George’s ol’ runnin’ buddy Maurice Ravel. And he closes on an intimate note with a tender solo piano rendition of “Embraceable You.”

The breadth and depth of Hancock’s artistry as expressed throughout this magnificent collection is absolutely stunning. With Gershwin’s World, a celebration of composer’s centennial, he has crafted one for the ages.