ALBUM (1964)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am


Empyrean Isles
Herbie Hancock
Blue Note

The most influential of Herbie Hancock's classic Blue Note albums of the 1960s - Empyrean Isles (1964) and Maiden Voyage (1965) - were recorded while he was a member of Miles Davis' 'Second Great Quintet', and used that group's bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams.

They remain among the finest small group jazz albums ever recorded, and the empathy he had established with Carter and Williams allowed Hancock to explore his range as a pianist to the full on albums consisting entirely of his own original compositions.

Each was recorded in a single day by engineer Rudy van Gelder, each featured trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, had a nautical theme and contained tunes which went on to become jazz standards.

Maiden Voyage gave us the title track, Dolphin Dance and The Eye of the Hurricane, while Empyrean Isles contains the first versions of One Finger Snap and Cantaloupe Island.

One Finger Snap has a local resonance. The mid-1980s Hong Kong jazz band led by saxophonist Ric Halstead - with which a young Eugene Pao made his reputation - took its name from the tune. One memorable night at the old Rick's Cafe in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hancock dropped by and sat in with the band for a set which included the tune.

Cantaloupe Island was also a regular inclusion in Halstead and Pao's sets, and it acquired a new lease of life in 1993 when jazz rappers Us3 sampled the riff for a hit single and enduring dance-floor favourite they titled Cantaloop.

The original recordings are hard to beat, though. Hancock, Carter, Williams and Hubbard - on cornet rather than trumpet for these sessions - were all at the top of their game, and while the music was perhaps less experimentally daring than the contemporaneous performances of the Davis quintet, it was certainly more funky.

Playing over the finest rhythm section in jazz at the time, Hubbard was given considerable freedom for melodic improvisation. On One Finger Snap Hancock supplied the changes, and left Hubbard to come up with a tune. His first improvised solo has been repeated on most subsequent covers as though it's a composed melody.

Hubbard - who later performed with the same musicians in Hancock's Miles-inspired VSOP quintet - played magnificently on Maiden Voyage as well, but for those sessions had to work in a slightly more arranged fashion with tenor saxophonist George Coleman.

Maiden Voyage is perhaps the more focused of the two albums, and the one more likely to turn up on internet lists of essential jazz recordings, but Empyrean Isles is broader in its scope, extending from floating free jazz improvisation on The Egg, to the bluesy modal proto jazz funk of Cantaloupe Island.

Empyrean Isles is now available in a Van Gelder remastered edition including alternate takes of Oliloqui Valley and One Finger Snap, and sounds better than ever. Maiden Voyage is worth picking up too.