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Herbie Hancock: The Piano

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Herbie Hancock

The music on 1978’s The Piano and 1979’s V.S.O.P.-Live Under the Sky-recorded in Tokyo and released in Japan-was never available in the United States, and much of it has not been available anywhere because Columbia didn’t consider this music commercially marketable at the time. The Piano is an extremely rare example of a Herbie Hancock solo piano recording, and V.S.O.P.-Live Under the Sky is a two-CD set containing back-to-back nights in concert by a superstar band of Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams.

There is an audio story associated with both of these releases. The Piano was recorded in a forbidding purist process, long beloved by audiophiles, called direct-to-disc. Hancock’s performances in the studio were cut, in real time, onto master acetate discs, from which plates were made to stamp out the two sides of a high-quality LP. Live Under the Sky was a very early digital recording, made on one of Sony’s first digital tape recorders, the 1610.

Columbia/Legacy makes extravagant claims for the audio excellence of these two recordings, and it is half right: The Piano is a rich, vivid sonic documentation of an individual piano at a specific moment in a particular acoustic space in the hands of a special artist. And Live Under the Sky is all but unlistenable.

The liner notes for The Piano contain detailed information about the direct-to-disc recording process and imply that this technology is responsible for the superb sound of the reissue. But in fact both of these releases were mastered from digital tapes made on a Sony 1610. CD reissues of direct-to-disc recordings are almost never made from the master acetate discs in creating digital transfers. Direct-to-disc recording sessions always run a tape back-up, and in the case of The Piano it was a digital tape made on a Sony 1610. This tape was sent from Japan to Sony engineer Mark Wilder 26 years later, and he used it to master the CD.

The digital tape source serves this project extremely well. Most recordings of the piano, regardless of format, portray it as a one-dimensional percussion device of varying pitch, but The Piano gets at the instrument’s very soul, revealing it as a source of vast aural complexity. Of course, the beauty of this piano’s sound is not separable from, and is in fact identical to, what Hancock plays on it. The three standards here-“My Funny Valentine,” “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Someday My Prince Will Come”-are firmly linked to Hancock’s former boss, Miles Davis, and they are among the most stunning achievements of the pianist’s recording career.

The eight-minute master take of “Valentine” is the most gradual and diverse unfolding, a profound contemplation of one Rodgers and Hart endowment in which the melodic essence recurs and recurs in luminous unmistakable fragments as Hancock’s creative process climbs and glides down and contracts and erupts again. The chiming, lingering notes are identical with feeling, whether hard keystrokes or barely audible touches. The three alternate takes are fascinating in how Hancock seems to wipe his mind clean and start over. The songs’ famous themes emerge, of course, but at different places in the flow of invention. The four Hancock originals, especially “Harvest Time,” since they arrive without historical association, feel like pure spontaneous acts of the imagination.

In stark sonic contrast to The Piano, the ensemble unisons on Live Under the Sky, with the serrated edges of Shorter’s tenor and the shrieks of Hubbard’s trumpet, are harsh enough to rip your ears off. It is rare for a recording to be both glaringly bright and dead, with no air, but this one manages that feat. All the instruments are on a single flat plane, about two inches from your face. It hurts.

With The Piano, sonic and musical excellence are aspects of a single aesthetic experience. Conversely, on Live Under the Sky nastiness unites both the music and its delivery system. V.S.O.P., of course, is Miles Davis’ “second great quintet,” with Hubbard replacing Miles. Changing out trumpet players utterly transformed this band. It went from a capacity for infinitely subtle creative suggestion to bombast and bravado. It is remarkable that an ensemble with this much talent could play anything as ugly as “Eye of the Hurricane.” It is devoid of dynamic contrast, staying on one maniacal level. Thankfully, not every track is as obnoxious as “Hurricane.” Carter’s “Teardrop” has an attractive melody line, and Shorter and Hancock take fervent, well-shaped solos on Williams’ “Pee Wee.” But even on slow pieces, the toxic sound and the raw aggressiveness of the players makes the music overbearing.

The exception is the encore that ends the second evening and the second CD. Hancock and Shorter, exhausted by this time, play duets on “Stella by Starlight” and “On Green Dolphin Street.” They are rough, with Shorter’s tone quavery and his phrasing uncertain. Yet these two pieces, which never move far from their melodies, possess an authenticity of feeling that teases us with what V.S.O.P. might have been.

Given that the Sony 1610 created such a high quality digital master for The Piano, it cannot be the reason for the wretched sound on the V.S.O.P. set. Other factors were clearly in play. The Piano comes from a rigorous, disciplined audiophile recording session, where all the technical engineering moves in the studio were correct. Live Under the Sky was made outside, in the 30,000-seat Denon Colosseum, in the rain, with lots of amplification on stage. The final outcomes are what matter. The Piano is a reference-quality piano recording that begs to be remastered in DSD for SACD release. V.S.O.P.-Live Under the Sky is the perfect album to play loudly when you want to clear your house of unwanted guests.