HERBIE HANCOCK = The Essential Herbie Hancock – Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Ron Carter, Mike Clark, et al. – Columbia/Legacy 82796-94593-2, 62:22 ***1/2:
It was a sage move on the part of Sony to call this two disc set “The Essential Herbie Hancock,” rather than “The Best of Herbie Hancock.” There are stunning and bold cuts here, but there are also clunkers, and whether the compilers included them out of honesty or completion is anyone’s guess. First, stunners: the tune-stuck-in-your- head Watermelon Man, and the ruminative and ‘Round Midnight, and the peripatetic Cantaloupe Island prove Hancock a genius ensemble player as well as dazzling soloist.
If you find yourself talking about the early 70s jazz zeitgeist, the discussion will eventually come around to two giants: Miles Davis and him. Listen to the funk masterpiece Maiden Voyage and you will catch yourself in a time warp, I promise you. The same will happen if you spin the proto-techno hit Rockit, a great tune that snapped the MTV color line ten years later. Then there are the clunkers. In 1949, Dimitri Shostakovich, in a politic move, wrote an appalling cantata, The Song of the Forests, to neutralize the cultural commissars. Many believe it a deliberate parody of the prevalent style, subtle enough to mock them without them knowing. I hope the same can be said for Hancock’s bland and uninspired Joanna’s Theme, film music for the execrable Death Wish. Luckily it’s the last cut on the first disc. Likewise, Stars in your Eyes is a forgettable number with a lame disco beat and unimaginative vocal arrangement. Some of the later works like Finger Painting, with Hancock’s virtuosic piano work, and the haunting solo piece Manhattan redeem the rest of this disc.
— Peter Bates