Graded on a Curve:
Herbie Hancock,
Maiden Voyage

The short description of Herbie Hancock’s gorgeous 1965 LP Maiden Voyage, is that it’s the ’63-’64 Miles Davis Quintet with Freddie Hubbard subbing on trumpet. But as nicely as that reads, it’s actually much more. Hancock’s fifth and best record as leader, to this point it was also his most ambitious, and was additionally something of a rarity in jazz terms; a wildly successful and delightfully peaceful concept album.

Herbie Hancock has had a long and illustrious career, and in tandem with his contribution to the groups of Miles Davis, Maiden Voyage is probably his finest moment. As a look at the personnel relates, the disc is closely tied to Miles’ ‘60’s work, but as a standalone document Hancock’s masterful session equals anything Davis produced in the decade with the exception of the live material from the Plugged Nickel.

Some will disagree and a few will downright scoff at the notion of Maiden Voyage being rated so highly, in part because of its lack of edginess and decidedly refined sensibility. This circumstance extends to the considerable influence Hancock’s record wielded upon subsequent endeavors in the jazz and rock fields, byproducts that span in quality from mediocre to flat-out awful.

But that’s okay. What Maiden Voyage lacks in bluesy grit or fiery abstraction is greatly made up for by boldness of aspiration and a beautifully sustained mood, and as the title track and “Dolphin Dance” have both become late-period jazz standards, a certain percentage of underwhelming interpretations is basically inevitable.

It surely does bear mentioning that most musicians, no matter how well intentioned, simply lack the sensitivity to appropriately contend with the oceanic-inspired modality Hancock has mastered here. That the pianist-composer was only 24 years old when this session was finished only intensifies its achievement. And while Maiden Voyage is a swell name for a debut, Hancock’s actual first LP as leader, recorded in ’62 for Blue Note, sports the equally apropos title of Takin’ Off (however, his initial appearance for the label came a year earlier as a sideman on Donald Byrd’s Royal Flush).

Producer Alfred Loin obviously recognized something special in Hancock, for he wasted no time in dropping the inexperienced youngster into the studio with Dexter Gordon in a support spot. But partially due to Hancock hanging out under the wing of Coleman Hawkins, he handled the pressure quite well. Takin’ Off includes one of his signature compositions “Watermelon Man,” the tune indirectly landing him a hit single via Mongo Santamaria’s version the following year.

Hancock chalked up a few more diverse sideman dates (from Roland Kirk to Tony Bennett) and in ’63 completed first My Point of View with a larger and rather distinctive lineup featuring trombonist Grachan Moncur III and guitarist Grant Green and then Extensions and Dimensions with bassist Paul Chambers, conga player Chihuahua Martinez, and the prolific Willie Bobo on drums.

In April of that year he debuted with Davis on the trumpeter’s transitional album Seven Steps to Heaven, activity that lead to bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams appearing, along with Freddie Hubbard on cornet, on Hancock’s ’64 effort Empyrean Isles. Carter had started out in the groups of Jaki Byard and Chico Hamilton, but prior to hooking up with Davis he was noted most for his association with multi-horn man Eric Dolphy and the great pianist Mal Waldron.

Williams was in the midst of his now celebrated prodigy phase; he began playing professionally at age 13, keeping company with saxophonists Sam Rivers and Jackie McLean, and joined Miles at 17. At 18 he cut Life Time, his debut as a leader for Blue Note. And Hubbard had first connected with Hancock while lending his trumpet to Takin’ Off; the pianist returned the gesture by sitting in on Freddie’s LP Hub-Tones that same year.

Empyrean Isles was a quartet affair, and for Maiden Voyage the number was expanded by one to include Davis’ saxophonist of the time George Coleman. While the Second Great Quintet wasn’t truly solidified until Wayne Shorter arrived (he replaced Sam Rivers who stepped in for Coleman), the ’63-’64 period is far from negligible. A Memphis exponent, previous to joining Davis Coleman already had a decade of varied experience under his belt, and it showed not only in his work with the Quintet but across both sides of Maiden Voyage as well.

But as stated above, Hancock’s masterpiece is far more than a slight adjustment to the Davis template. The biggest difference, at least initially, comes down to Hubbard, a horn man solidly out of the Clifford Brown tradition and therefore brandishing a style highly dissimilar to Davis’ singular voice. Citing the influence of Brown isn’t intended to shortchange the trumpet player’s ability; if perhaps slightly underrated due to late-career faltering, he’s one of the most important jazzmen in the music’s long history.

In addition to a large run of worthwhile LPs under his own name, Hubbard also played on Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, served in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers from ’61-’64, was foil to Don Cherry on Ornette Coleman’s historic Free Jazz recording, contributed to John Coltrane’s equally groundbreaking Ascension (plus the saxophonist’s Olé and Africa/Brass dates), and took part in Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, a bunch of Shorter’s ‘60s Blue Notes, Rivers’ Contours, Sonny Rollins’ East Broadway Run Down and Andrew Hill’s Compulsion!!!!!

Along with his quickly recognizable sound, a strong case can be made for Hubbard as the most versatile instrumentalist of his era. This made him an extremely good fit for Maiden Voyage, bringing his personality to the studio as the spotlight calmly beamed upon Hancock’s compositional and instrumental prowess.

The title track opens the proceedings and immediately establishes the aura of relative tranquility, Coleman and Hubbard unfurling in unison as Hancock examines a melody in counterpoint and the rhythm section comes together to work subtle magic. Coleman solos first and briefly, as he rises he offers just enough assertiveness to assuredly link with Hubbard’s more forcefully abstract display and without discordance.

But “Maiden Voyage” is loaded with rewards; Hancock on the tune is reminiscent of both Bill Evans (an explicit early influence) and the modal richness of McCoy Tyner, and in his solo impact from the modern Classical realm is detectable. Williams does lovely things to his toms throughout, and in the fourth minute in particular, Carter’s bass is superb.

It’s not all serenity, though. “The Eye of the Hurricane” features a speedier tempo, and after the head it’s Hubbard that delivers the first solo, his expressiveness humid and increasingly radical before giving way to Coleman’s less aggressive but just as substantial lines. With Hancock’s solo, the intensity is maintained as a sly streamlining is introduced. By the time he’s done and that sweetly wobbly head is reintroduced, the album’s overall feel is shrewdly reasserted.

And this brings greater impact to the quiet spaciousness of “Little One,” though the soloists have much to say during it’s nearly nine minutes. First Coleman, who vindicates himself with an economical spot brimming with methodical ideas; if not at the level of Trane, he’s easily on par with the best work of his Blue Note cohort Joe Henderson. Next is Hubbard, who unwinds with verve and grace. Then Hancock gives his prettiest solo on the disc, as Williams interacts skillfully with his cymbals. Last is Carter’s faultless showing, his artistry in perfect harmony with the music’s momentum.

The alternately cyclical and unpredictable “Survival of the Fittest” pulls a switcheroo; betwixt a bit of horn angularity, inside the first minute Williams briefly gets the floor to his lonesome. Then it’s take off time for Hubbard, who gives his horn a workout as the band rolls beneath him. Williams again rises with further succinct soloing, and then Coleman steps forward. The track’s highlight is Hancock’s lengthy rumination on the keys, though Williams is excellent in the final half minute.

And within the first half minute of “Dolphin Dance” it’s readily clear why the tune has become a standard, the melodic accessibility combining with the warmth of the ensemble playing, the strength of the individual expressions and that gentle but vibrant mood. It’s necessary to emphasize that if evoking a consistent vibe, Maiden Voyage is never monochromatic. In fact, it displays range that’s rooted in Hancock’s acumen as a composer.

As the titles of these pieces underline (and the notes by Hancock and Nora Kelly expand upon), this is a record devoted to the topic of the ocean, with a sturdy subplot concerning the weather (as the pianist writes on the back cover, climate being of deep concern to seamen) added in. And what’s undeniably cool about instrumental concept albums is the lack of overbearing or trite lyrics pontificating on the subject. Instead, Hancock and his band grapple with the themes on a level totally musical, which in this case results in the ambiance resonating even deeper.

And Maiden Voyage’s seamlessly articulated mood is what ultimately brings it into comparison with the work of Davis. Like Kind of Blue before it and In a Silent Way after, Hancock manifests a sublime atmosphere and never sets a foot wrong. The result is one of the most unique and purely enjoyable LPs of its era.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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