Herbie Hancock became a giant under the tutelage of giants. With Mwandishi and Headhunters, the former student then reared his own roster of jazz heavyweights. Unfortunately, at the height of his popularity and singular vision, Hancock didn’t get to work those forebears which shaped him into the iconoclast he was to become. Thanks to a Chicago radio recording from February 1977, we do have an opportunity to hear Hancock with another singular voice of his instrument–with both artists at the peak of their prowess. For this seemingly one-off performance Hancock teamed up with the king of the fretless electric bass, Jaco Pastorius.
The pianist had previously worked with Jaco on the latter’s official debut record, providing some much-appreciated funk to the more developed and intricate compositions on the LP. In this situation, however, Jaco would be taking on the role of the sideman. Though perfectly trained for the position from his time with The Weather Report, the late-70s saw Jaco succumbing to serious mental health issues. His ‘eccentricities’ gradually were devolving into self-destructive theatrics, a tendency to overplay, and a blatant disregard to those he often shared the stage with. In the case of this performance with Hancock, we are lucky enough to find the bassist on his best behavior. Employing his innovations to contribute to the whole without trying to consume it.
From the outset, the show is draped in absolute funk filth. The group gets things going with Hancock’s “Chameleon.” Herbie introduces the theme on synthesizer, and what initially is interpreted as a guitar player, turns out to be Jaco chording the upper register of his instrument. Hancock slides onto the clavinet as Jaco seamlessly picks up the groove. Though the two could work this groove into eternity without one losing interest, it isn’t long until Hancock’s secret weapon makes an appearance. Throughout the seventies, with every development and transformation, present for every group, the anchor for Hancock’s explorations remained. So naturally, riding along on this night is Bennie Maupin. His blaring refrain cuts through the dueling sludge of the keyed and stringed basses, establishing a coherent theme for the sake of an audience who could otherwise get lost in the Hancock-Jaco low-end clinic.
Those familiar with the studio version are accustomed to Hancock’s synth freak out about five minutes in. On this night, there are dual soloists in friendly competition, to see who can propel the audience further into the vast void of space funk. Jaco emerges from the cauldron first with Hancock on bass duties. Drenched with fuzz, the soloist removes all inhibition, executing a slurry of his signature pinch harmonics before passing the baton to Hancock. It is here that the master reminds the audience why his name is on the billing. After testing the limits of time and space, Hancock truly loses control and emits literal walls of sound from his synth that override everything his band is doing behind him. Before launching the crowd into total abyss, Maupin manages to muster up the strength to burst through Hancock’s sonic barriers and wrap up the piece in the theme he set ten minutes prior.
Following the cataclysmic molten funk of “Chameleon,” the night takes a turn to tranquility. Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” is worked into a duet between its creator and the fretless bass revolutionary he shared the stage with. The relative peace acts as the valley to the peaks reached on the first number. Hancock then introduces the group with “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” before launching into an extended run of Maupin’s “It Remains to be Seen.”
As expected, the occasion rises for the usually reserved and pocketed Reed-man to shine. ‘Workout’ would seem apt for explanation, but this goes beyond, reaching toward the marathon-like performances of Coltrane in Japan or Ayler at the Village Vanguard. With the funk remaining an afterthought, the piece provides the appropriate backdrop for the group to show their true jazz chops. Between the trading of solos that serve as reminders that these folks are the best of their craft at the time, the group bogs themselves down in a groove so heavy that one can hardly fathom that the next soloist is able to pull themselves out of the mire to interrupt the proceedings. In the final showcase of the night, Hancock switches off the computers in favor of the piano. The labyrinth of runs, key changes, and glissandos gradually moves toward his signature dissonant chords, before Maupin once more gets the leader back on track to close the night in funky coda. | j rooney