Thursday, October 21, 2010

Herbie Hancock: Empyrean Isles (1964)

In a word, terrifying.  The incendiary brainchild of four artists in the first bloom of their careers, Empyrean Isles remains one of the most daringly imaginative titles ever to appear under the Blue Note label.  Its best tracks--none better than the astonishing closer, "The Egg"--possess a nervous energy, a panicky urgency suggestive of some imminent crisis over which the music broods.  The percussion crackles; the piano skitters about, its notes like supercharged ions crashing into one another; and the trumpet, meteoric, burns through it all, with all the brashness--with the piercing swagger--we'd expect, not quite from Clifford Brown, but perhaps from Brown's rebellious bastard child.  The whole is a seething mass that, for all the flashy originality of its individual performers, somehow coheres beautifully: the players keep on goading each other--and us--to audacious new heights, to lushly exotic musical terrains.  This is music, in short, that we're still learning how to listen to.
The record's frenetic, high-octane sound was, in part, the sound of youth.  This is an album cut by a cadre of kids, essentially: Hancock was freshly 24, though he'd already released two titles as a bandleader; Freddie Hubbard (cornet) and Ron Carter (bass) were only slightly older; while Tony Williams (drums), that most freakishly precocious of jazz prodigies, was, at 18, not even old enough to be legally admitted into the nightclubs he played at.  Hancock, Carter, and Williams were still active members of Miles's legendary second quintet, and had yet to record most of the records for which that group became famous: Miles Smiles, Nefertiti, The Sorcerer, and others.  But Hancock, in organizing his own independent projects on the side, clearly was after something different from the old master: if Miles was interested in raw, at times soupy and formless, explorations into the unknown--jointly spearheaded by fast-rising star Wayne Shorter--then Hancock revealed, by contrast, a fascination with hard bop, a style that had peaked in the mid 50s but was still enjoying relative popularity.  Yet this wasn't the same hard bop that guys like Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderley had made famous a decade before; it was bop with an avant-garde twist.  True, cuts such as the opener, "One Finger Snap," and the contagious "Cantaloupe Island" (later recycled by US3 as "Cantaloop" in what would become Blue Note's best-selling single of all time) are straightforward enough.  But the moment we venture upon "The Egg" or "Oliloqui Valley" (especially the superior alternate take) we're confronted with vast, unwieldy soundscapes that, in their experimentation, remind us that this was also the year that A Love Supreme was recorded.  Soaking up both versions of "Oliloqui Valley" will reveal how adventurously inventive these wunderkinds were--how willing to branch off in completely different directions from one take to the next.  But one keeps coming back to "The Egg," which, in its solos, its almost telepathic interplay among the four players, and its sinister middle section--where the music slows to a creeping pace and Ron Carter takes a bow solo while the others chime in furtively--seems to distill the essence of the Empyrean Isles project.

It's tempting to pick out one member of this supergroup and say, "He's the one who makes this session tick."  But there's really no one who jumps out more than anyone else.  Yes, the man-child Tony Williams is frighteningly good, showing off the constant speeding-up and slowing-down of tempos and range of rhythms that propelled the Miles quintet.  But so is Freddie Hubbard, who delivers in Empyrean Isles what must be one of the single best, and most confident, studio performances on a trumpet (actually, it's a cornet) of the 1960s.  Among hard bop trumpeters during his own lifetime, he had only the brilliant but doomed Lee Morgan for company.  Ron Carter is always damned good as far as I'm concerned, and, well, Hancock is simply the only jazz pianist post-1950 who could stand toe-to-toe with Bill Evans.  If Evans was the contemplative, Debussy-influenced impressionist--the "quiet fire," as Miles dubbed him--then Hancock was the young punk whiz-kid who thrived on complexity for its own sake, the guy who, in his spare time, took apart gadgets and put them together again, and read Buddhist scriptures.  A student of engineering who was obsessed with electronics, he was one of the earliest and most ardent proponents of the fusion music that came along some years later.  And his intriguing later records (Crossings, Mwandishi), startlingly different from this one, show that he was one of the most successful practitioners of that style.  But in a sense he was never better than he was on his stripped down, visionary early albums, Empyrean Isles and, to a lesser extent, the more celebrated but less bold Maiden Voyage (1965).

Empyrean Isles

1. One Finger Snap (7:23)
2. Oliloqui Valley (8:30)
3. Cantaloupe Island (5:34)
4. The Egg (14:01)
5. One Finger Snap - Alternate Take (7:36)
6. Oliloqui Valley - Alternate Take (10:47)

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