Herbie Hancock’s Ahead-Of-Its-Time ‘Mr. Hands’

On December 27th 2019 » By Marcus J. Moore

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By the mid-1970s, disco was ubiquitous. It was on TV dance shows like Soul Train and the sweat-soaked dancefloors of Studio 54. The music seemed to touch everyone from Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, to Earth, Wind & Fire, and Diana Ross; even the most celebrated purveyors of funk and soul experimented with disco’s four-on-the-floor beat, undulating basslines, and rhythmic guitar chords. The groove caught the pianist and bandleader Herbie Hancock as well. By the late ’70s, on Sunlight opener “I Thought It Was You,” and throughout 1979’s aptly titled Feets Don’t Fail Me Now, the jazz titan had all but given up his known genre, and walked head-on into disco and other forms of electronic dance music. For those who’d been following Herbie — from the early ’60s as a pianist in the Miles Davis Quintet, to the early ’70s as leader of The Headhunters band — the move wasn’t surprising. Some 20 records into his solo career, Herbie was still exploring, still blending genres in hopes of creating new ones. Ever the innovator, he wouldn’t stay in one place for long.

By 1980, Herbie was considered a jazz icon, a title he’d earned over the previous two decades. Born in Chicago in 1940, he was a child prodigy who performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of 11; by high school, Herbie started playing jazz. In 1960, he was discovered by jazz great Donald Byrd, who invited the young pianist to do some session work. He worked with Byrd for two years, and in 1962, Herbie signed with legendary jazz label Blue Note Records and released his solo debut album, Takin’ Off. In 1963, Miles Davis brought Herbie into the second Miles Davis Quintet. Over the next five years, the band released some of the most celebrated jazz albums in history — including E.S.P., Sorcerer (VMP Essentials #60), and Nefertiti. Herbie was also a part of Davis’ genre-shifting work in the late ’60s; he played electric piano on In A Silent Way, an album that marked the beginning of Davis’ acclaimed electric period. Herbie became a solo star shortly after; he formed a band called The Headhunters and put out an album called Head Hunters in 1973. A frenetic fusion of jazz and electronic funk, it was the first jazz album to go platinum. The crowds got bigger and fans came from miles around to hear Herbie’s unique blend of black music, which no longer relied upon traditional jazz. It was disco, funk, and something else.

Herbie entered 1980 just like he exited the late ’70s — by crafting music designed for vigorous movement. Monster, released in March of 1980 after a stint in Japan, was yet another foray into disco, except the sound was more chic and urbane. Disco was on its way out, killed in public at Chicago’s Comiskey Park by scores of rock fans who detonated a box of disco records in the middle of the field. Though the display was symbolic, it represented the views of some fans who wanted their music to be grungy, more garage than nightclub. The demonstration worked — sort of: Disco soon faded from public view, replaced by a sophisticated sound that wasn’t as festive. Monster was glossier than Herbie’s late-’70s records, made for two-stepping at happy hour or beneath the sun as the cookout commences. And where disco was meant to sustain the party, this new sound was meant to slow the tempo. It was the cooldown, headphone music made for quiet reflection. Perhaps it was needed at the time: In 1980, America was in economic peril, and in the shadow was an actor-turned-politician named Ronald Reagan who, with his trickle-down economics and packaged catchphrases, was running for U.S. president to, in his words, make the country “great again.”

After Monster, Herbie switched gears once more. On Mr. Hands, his second studio album of 1980, the pioneer revisited the jazz-funk mixture that brought him crossover success without leaning too heavily on that aesthetic. The albums leading up to Herbie’s 30th studio release were tied to one particular genre or mood, but on Mr. Hands, the musician opened himself to new technology (the Apple II computer) to create an equally familiar and forward-looking LP. Records like Sunlight and Feets Don’t Fail Me Now felt influenced by the mainstream marketplace and didn’t fully capture his essence. Herbie knew how to take what was popular and bend it to his will, but by the late ’70s, his music didn’t sound as adventurous. The records were good, but they weren’t great, and with a discography like Herbie’s — with classics like Maiden Voyage, Mwandishi, and Head Hunters — some worried that the musician had lost his creative fire.

Because of that perception, Herbie’s output flew under the radar during this period, as critics didn’t engage with Mr. Hands as much as they should have, writing it off as more of the same. But Herbie was ahead of the curve; the legend had always steered toward the unknown before the picture was fully developed. On Mr. Hands, he guided listeners to uncharted terrain: A mix of synthesized soul, and electronic and acoustic instruments, it was a kitchen sink record on which the legend explored ambient textures and Afro-Caribbean jazz. As a result, Mr. Hands felt very much of the moment, a silky suite of turbulent jazz and understated bedroom funk tailored to Quiet Storm radio. When examined in today’s musical climate, where the lines between genres are more skewed than ever, a song like “Textures” — the album’s synth-heavy closer — forecasted where he was headed next: contemporary R&B. For that song, Herbie went at it alone, playing all the instruments himself, landing on something that predates the synth-driven soul of When I Get Home-era Solange some 40 years later. Play Herbie’s “Textures” and Solange’s “Binz” back to back: They both feel celestial, carried by the same woozy synth chords and reflective aura. And when taken within the context of 1980, you can hear a direct correlation between it and the meditative soul of Stevie Wonder’s “Rocket Love.”

Then there’s “Calypso,” a six-minute jaunt where Herbie plays synthesized steel drums, adding an electric jolt to the track’s flowing cascade of stacked percussion and pronounced piano chords. The song follows “Spiraling Prism,” the album’s scenic and methodical opener, and when played without interruption, “Calypso” feels like a shot in the arm. It was also a sigh of relief. By all measures, Herbie had returned: His disco era was a thing of the past and he was getting back to basics. That was most evident on “Shiftless Shuffle,” which was originally recorded seven years prior during the Head Hunters sessions and feels just as relevant on Mr. Hands. After a brief intro, where the bandleader cooly navigates a stampeding drum break, the beat shifts a little, locking into a volcanic groove that gathers steam as it unfolds. It’s a worthy complement to “Sly,” the most spellbinding track on Head Hunters. Other songs were more contemporary in tone: “Just Around The Corner” skewed closest to disco, and “4 A.M.” had a loungy, nocturnal essence. Not even a year later, on 1981’s Magic Windows, Herbie reversed course yet again, dumping all his traditional instruments for synthesizers and computers. Mr. Hands marked the last time he’d play straight-ahead jazz on a studio album in a while.

Three years after Mr. Hands, a brand new genre was quickly becoming popular in black neighborhoods, with its strongest foothold in the blighted blocks of New York City. In places like Harlem, the Bronx, and Queens, young kids with turntables and their parents’ old records met in city parks, plugged into their electric grids, and held impromptu block parties, where they’d scratch vinyl and breakdance, giving a voice to those who’d largely gone unheard. It was the counterculture, much like punk-rock a few years prior, and rock ’n’ roll a decade before that. It was called hip-hop, and unlike those genres, this music was made for and by black people in the projects, who were sampling jazz and funk into nonstop loops on which they could rap about — well — everything: the ghetto, their sneakers, and crooked cops.

Not one to be left behind, Herbie recorded a song called “Rockit” that introduced him to a whole new audience of young listeners, whose parents likely listened to his music in the ’60s and ’70s. It was an immediate hit, and at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, Herbie won five Moonmen at the inaugural edition of MTV’s Video Music Awards and proved his ubiquity yet again. The man had staying power, and no matter the decade, Herbie and his art would be in the conversation.

Mr. Hands was a pivotal record for Herbie; for a legend in limbo, the album lifted Herbie from a creative doldrum. The years have been kind to Mr. Hands, and looking back, one can point to that album as a harbinger for the future funk that would be his staple through the 1980s. After a brief jazz revival in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the music had lain dormant for several years, until jazz artists like Roy Hargrove and Robert Glasper started working with like-minded rappers to bring the music back to the fore. This thinking is influenced by someone like Herbie, a restless creator with an adventurous spirit, who was willing to experiment with new sounds and ideas. Without him, there’s likely no Glasper, no Hargrove, no Terrace Martin. And thus the mid-2000s hybrid of jazz instrumentation and hip-hop likely wouldn’t exist. The three were overtly influenced by Herbie, which encouraged them to build a foundation in jazz while branching out to other genres. From Glasper’s Black Radio, to Hargrove’s Hard Groove, to R+R=Now’s Collagically Speaking and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (which Martin helped produce), Herbie’s fingerprints have touched the full spectrum of jazz, funk, R&B, and soul, and Mr. Hands gives a panoramic glimpse into the precipice of modern jazz.

Here in late 2019, Herbie’s seen as a jazz god, yet he’s still learning, growing, and looking for fresh inspiration. He’s now a mentor and frequent player with experimental producer Flying Lotus, bassist Thundercat and saxophonist Kamasi Washington, and his nimble keys can be heard on FlyLo’s 2014 free jazz opus, You’re Dead. A record like Mr. Hands helped make it possible, even if it took almost 40 years for us to comprehend it.

Marcus J. Moore

Marcus J. Moore is a New York-based music journalist who's covered jazz, soul, and hip-hop at The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Nation, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Pitchfork and elsewhere. From 2016 to 2018, he worked as Bandcamp Daily's senior editor and gave an editorial voice to rising indie musicians. His forthcoming biography, The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America, will be released via Atria Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) and will detail the Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper's rise to superstardom.

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