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Herbie Hancock: The Complete Columbia Album Collection 1972-1988

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Box sets this colossal should come with roadmaps. At 34 discs, the set will surely intimidate the novice listener. In today’s ADD world, being presented with nearly two decades of material can be paralyzing, especially if the listener’s inclination is to absorb the music chronologically.

The upswing, though, is that Hancock’s musical trajectory during his Columbia run wasn’t stuck in one stylistic lane. Instead, it crisscrossed between such idiomatic routes as white-knuckle postbop, Afro-futuristic jazz-funk, roller-skate boogie and hip-hop-flavored techno. So between the bizarre, percolating rhythms and murky textures of “Rain Dance,” the opening composition on 1973’s Sextant, to “Chemical Residue,” the spooky, dense ballad that closes 1988’s Perfect Machine, this set offers a lot of entrances into Hancock’s fascinating pathways.

Of course, for the stalwart Hancock fan, revisiting undisputed classics such as 1973’s Head Hunters or 1983’s Future Shock may become just speed bumps on the way to reassessing such LPs as 1979’s Feets, Don’t Fail Me Now and 1982’s Lite Me Up, which garnered some of the worst critical response in Hancock’s career, or almost-forgotten gems such as Hancock’s 1974 funk-noir movie soundtrack Death Wish and his hypnotic duo LP with Gambian kora virtuoso Foday Musa Suso, 1986’s Village Life. For this writer, who happens to be a diehard Hancock fan, exploring the material previously released only in Japan was the ideal point of entry.

Those Japanese LPs include such head-scratchers as singer Kimiko Kasai’s Butterfly from 1979, which features Hancock and his late-’70s ensemble as the vocalist’s band. The material pinpoints that period when Hancock was transitioning from the heady improvisations that marked the Headhunters’ early period into a more pop-friendly approach that included vocals. While Hancock’s playing on various keyboards and synthesizers is expectedly fine, and the rest of the ensemble, which included Headhunter carryovers-saxophonist Bennie Maupin, percussionist Bill Summers and bassist Paul Jackson-along with guitarist Ray Obiedo, drummer Alphonse Mouzon and keyboardist Webster Lewis, has its moments, the project in whole is more intriguing than inspiring. Hancock and company sound as if they’re holding back in order to not ruffle Kasai’s perfunctory singing. She brings a karaoke vibe to the fore; when she sings “I Thought It Was You,” from Hancock’s 1977 LP Sunlight, or Stevie Wonder’s classic “As,” the lyrics sound as if Kasai is rendering them phonetically with little understanding of their actual meanings.

Far more engaging from that same group is Directstep, which also came out in Japan in 1979. The title alludes to the then-cutting-edge recording technology, which allowed the band to record digitally “direct to disk.” The album features only three compositions, two of which were showcased on Kasai’s Butterfly. Nevertheless, the performances on Directstep are more emotionally involved, with some surprising turns from Lewis, whose organ solo on “Butterfly” gives the song a greasy funkiness seldom heard in Hancock’s music. Obiedo also reveals gutbucket sensibilities through his guitar improvisation on the titillating “Shiftless Shuffle,” which takes on a slower, bluesier swagger than the more famous, quicksilver version found on 1980’s Mr. Hands.

This box also allows you to take stock in the wealth of material Hancock recorded with his V.S.O.P. combo, a sort of tribute to Miles Davis’ mid-’60s iconic quintet and the members’ Blue Note Records years. The first V.S.O.P. edition, captured on the live 1976 double-LP V.S.O.P., expanded the group concept to include reunions with members from Mwandishi and the Headhunters. Eventually, though, the mainstay V.S.O.P. combo reunited Hancock with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. In the States, V.S.O.P. released two more critically acclaimed live albums, with the final 1983 LP credited to the Herbie Hancock Quartet, which featured a young Wynton Marsalis.

Again, the go-to V.S.O.P. gems in this set are the Japanese recordings, such as 1977’s Tempest in the Colosseum, with one of the most volatile interpretations of Hancock’s “Eye of the Hurricane” ever recorded. The set also offers a balls-to-the wall take on Hubbard’s fusion classic “Red Clay.” Nineteen-eighty-one’s Live Under the Sky and the only studio V.S.O.P. LP, Five Stars, released the same year, are equally rewarding. The latter features Shorter’s enigmatic offering “Circe,” which was later renamed and became the title track for Shorter’s 1985 LP, Atlantis.

More revelatory are the trio and solo Japanese releases such as 1979’s The Piano, featuring splendid solo renderings of “On Green Dolphin Street” and “My Funny Valentine,” and the 1982 trio date with Carter and Williams that finds them exploring such chestnuts as “Stablemates” and “That Old Black Magic.”

Still, after journeying through these and more Japanese recordings, you’ve only just begun delving into the depths of this opulent collection-even from a diehard Hancock perspective.

Originally Published