I’d say it’s about time I dig into the archives of music released earlier than just the past few years. As soon as I made that decision, one specific artist popped into my head almost immediately: Herbie Hancock. And why not? He’s only one of the most influential musicians ever to exist in the jazz fusion world. I would bet money that a large majority of the artists that I’ve featured previously on the site were influenced either directly or indirectly in some form by Herbie Hancock. He was a man who extended his creative genius far beyond the world of jazz. He was a musical innovator that made breakthroughs in the use of electronic synthesizers and freeform improvisation. He combined stylistic elements of jazz, blues, funk, and modern classical music into a totally unique fusion of genres. The legacy which he has created will last for many long years to come and influence many new generations of musicians. Anyone who claims that Hancock was “before their time” deserves to be slapped senseless.
The album that I’m focusing on in particular today is one of his 1974 releases, Thrust. As the followup to his ’73 release Headhunters, Hancock was now firmly entrenched in the widely popular, highly competitive funk-jazz-fusion game of the era. But Herbie is never one to be outshined or assimilated into a much greater collection of mediocre artists. No, he has always been the one to push the limits past the point where anyone thought they could go. In order to accomplish such a gargantuan undertaking, he’s assembled a legendary cast of characters to accompany him. On bass guitar is his main man, Paul Jackson, who went on to play on nine of Hancock’s subsequent releases. Bernie Maupin, a master multireedist, takes care of all the lead woodwind parts. Aside from his work with Herbie, he is most well known for his performance on the seminal Miles Davis album Bitches Brew, his role as a bandleader, and his collaborations with the likes of Horace Silver and McCoy Tyner.
Bill Summers adds a whole new layer to the group’s abilities with his skill as an immensely talented percussionist. Specializing in Afro-Cuban and Latin styles, he quickly becomes an integral part of the band’s sound. The final player in the quintet is Mike Clark, the awe-inspiring drummer and only musician new to the lineup that was previously established with Head Hunters. His performance on the album’s second composition, “Actual Proof,” if frequently referenced as one of the greatest examples of what is now known as linear funk drumming. This style of drumming is characterized by the grooves which never involve more than one drum or cymbal being played at any given time. The result is an incredibly syncopated, incredibly “linear” series of drum grooves. It’s an extraordinary sound to behold on Thrust and it plays a large part in contributing to the album’s iconic status.
The first cut off the record is “Palm Grease.” Starting with Mike Clark’s initial drum groove, the piece introduces each musician one by one – Hancock, Jackson, Summers, and finally Maupin. For the next ten and a half minutes, the groove is continuously pushed to new heights. We see this happening a lot in Hancock’s music – the idea of “exploring the groove” rather than sheer virtuosic displays. In its own quasi-psychedelic way, it’s easy to find yourself lost (now that’s a paradox, ain’t it?) in the slow, methodical development of each song. From a historical perspective, this album would have been riding the wake of the high times of the psychedelic era (pun somewhat intended) in the late ’60s to the early ’70s. The intense attitude of musical exploration and innovation from that period can be heard in Hancock’s work here, though it is on a much grander scale.
As Herbie’s synthesized strings carry us out of the first number, the music is immediately picked back up with “Actual Proof.” In this track, the rhythm section is king (not to diminish their work on any of the other pieces, though). The tempo has been kicked up a notch, and the drums-bass-keys trio unleashes a furious frenzy of frenetic feistiness. Rhythmic displacement and polyrhythms are abundant here as the energy continuously slides from high to low and back again. It is only after ten minutes that we finally get to relax with “Butterfly.” If there was ever a classic Hancock tune, this would probably be it. A butterfly is quite a fragile creature, and as such the ensemble plays delicately enough not to crush its flimsy exoskeleton. Once again we are given the psychedelic treatment with constantly undulating keyboard pads laid above a hypnotically pulsing beat. Maupin in particular gets to go crazy in this song, delivering a soprano saxophone solo the likes of which had never been heard in all the land (probably not true, but it makes for excellent storytelling).
The fourth and final composition on Thrust is “Spank-A-Lee.” Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen, because the funk has now returned in full force. By now we’ve come to expect the potential that lies in any upbeat groove played by this outstanding group of musicians, yet somehow it still manages to blow us away. Everything about it is supreme: Paul Jackson lays down some of the funkiest bass lines you’ve ever heard, Bill Summers kills it on the congas, and Maupin once again flourishes on the saxophone. Hancock himself stays in a supporting role until about halfway through the track, at which time he once again emerges to claim his rightful title as the master of jazz-funk keyboard playing.
Let me close with a public service announcement to the youngest generation of music lovers. If you are not familiar with any of Herbie Hancock’s illustrious work, then you run the risk of severe cultural and artistic unenlightenment. If you haven’t been blown away by a funky bass line, masterful keyboard comping, or a top-notch drum groove in the past six months, it is highly recommend that you see your doctor about Thrust. If you don’t see immediate results, well…I’m not sure I really know what to tell you. Check out this album, as well as the rest of Hancock’s catalog. You definitely will not regret it.