Give Until It Hurts

Herbie Hancock
The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions
Blue Note

WHEN BLUE NOTE casually tossed off this six-disc retrospective, jazz fanatics let out a collective groan: With hundreds of the label's lost gems in need of digital polish, why have they wasted one more jewel box on Hancock's catalog? After all, 99 percent of what's been packaged here has already been available for years on single CDs like Takin' Off, My Point of View, Inventions & Dimensions, Empyrean Isles, Maiden Voyage, Speak Like a Child, and The Prisoner. For the answer to that question, a cynic will point to the ceaseless gift sets and "remastered" rereleases still being mass-produced in the wake of Miles Davis's death. There are a handful of names--Monk, Mingus, Coltrane--the conglomerates know they can recalibrate, rewrap then resell to the coffee crowd at Barnes and Noble. Herbie Hancock is, pre-mortem, becoming one of those names. To be sure, the commercial success of the 58-year-old pianist's latest, lackluster "tribute" on Verve, Gershwin's World, proves the point. The Sixties Sessions is especially irksome for hard-core collectors. Only eight of the 54 tracks are previously unreleased. And of those, only one isn't an alternate take. What's worse, this material is not only subpar, but mostly meaningless. Fits and starts like these engage if they reveal musical growing pains or let listeners in on the uneven terrain of a jam session among unacquainted talents. On a majority of these C-sides ("Riot," "Watermelon Man"), what the listener hears are ordinary miscues and careless mistakes, facts of life in the recording studio that are no more telling than a TV blooper. Still, despite the repetition and toothless packaging, it's impossible not to marvel at the young Hancock's light phrases and groovy lines. During most of this formative period (1962-1968), he was writing for and freestyling with a brooding Davis quintet that featured saxist Wayne Shorter, teen drummer Tony Williams, and bassist Ron Carter. As a leader, Hancock guides these same musicians--along with session stars such as Thad Jones, Donald Byrd, and Dexter Gordon--away from the darker tones of hard bop with rhythmically infectious melodies (in a precursor to fusion) and light, orchestrated tone poems that conjure visions of Ellington. Tunes on the first four CDs, such as "Dolphin Dance," "One Finger Snap," and "Cantaloupe Island," have become standards for a reason. They're simple enough for casual listeners to digest (hence their re-emergence in hip-hop sampling), but also carry an improvisational immediacy. Hancock's subtle fingerings and innate sense of harmonics keep the soloists on their toes allowing little space for laziness. On "Takin' Off" and "Maiden Voyage," for instance, Freddie Hubbard turns in some of the most thoughtful and tuneful trumpet work of his career. "Speak Like a Child," the set's most memorable outing, and segments of "The Prisoner" play like orchestrated suites--more sentimental than spry. Still, like the whole of Hancock's Blue Note work, the sentiment is both ardent and cerebral. (David Schimke)

Miles Davis
The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions

Kronos Quartet: 25 Years
Kronos Quartet: 25 Years

THE BITCHES BREW sessions, only two-thirds of which have been released until now, represent the last great musical revolution from Miles Davis's repertory genius. Miles had already rearranged the face of jazz at least three times (with the bop-swing blend Birth of the Cool, the modal eminence of Kind of Blue, and the orchestral grandeur of his collaborations with Gil Evans), and patented the blueprint for small bop ensemble interactions with his quintets during the '50s and '60s. At the dawn of the '70s, he broke the mold once more, by transfusing the jittery nerve and bombastic nova-bursts of rock 'n' roll into his electrified explorations of space and harmony. The splatted phrases and roiling, burbled rhythms that came to fruition during these eight sessions, recorded from August 1969 to February 1970, would remain an integral part of Davis's arsenal until his death in 1991. The first disc-and-a-half of this four-CD set presents the original Bitches Brew double-LP without the remastering difficulties that have plagued some previous Davis reissues. There are also tracks from the sessions that appeared on Davis's Big Fun, Circle in the Round, and Live-Evil records. But the greatest source of excitement surrounding this release is the inclusion of nine previously unissued tracks. Some of them contain significant flaws: Davis's "Corrado" is an ungainly jumble further muddled by Billy Cobham's fulsome drumming; "Feio" is a slow, enervate New Age blues number from Wayne Shorter; and "Big Green Serpent" is a slight collection of riffs and playful snippets. The three previously unissued Joe Zawinul compositions on disc four are all solid but too reminiscent of the quieter, more reflective songs on Davis's In a Silent Way, recorded just six months before Bitches Brew. (Davis apparently thought so, too, recasting Zawinul's "Double Image" as a vehicle for John McLaughlin's torrid blues guitar on the Live-Evil LP.) The treasure trove of new material comes from a couple of Davis compositions recorded at a November 28 session in 1969. "Trevere" is a multitextured opus that expertly uses a huge rhythm section that includes two bassists, drummers, and electric pianists, a tabla player, and the Latin percussionist Airto. Their fascinating rhythmic exchanges are topped by gorgeous harmonies from sitarist Khalil Balakrishna, bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin, and especially organist Larry Young, who brings a churchlike resonance to the proceedings. The result is a tune both exotic and earthy, with a brooding tone that is nevertheless imbued with vibrant dramatic tension. "The Little Blue Frog" is simpler, with a noodling intro that steadily intensifies into a superb funk workout, presaging the music of Joe Zawinul's Weather Report and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters while retaining Miles's spatial flair and unique rhythmic shadings. It's bitchin'. (Britt Robson)

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