HERBIE HANCOCK — Empyrean Isles (review)

HERBIE HANCOCK — Empyrean Isles album cover Album · 1964 · Post Bop Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
dreadpirateroberts
Easily my favourite Herbie Hancock release.

In saying that, I do enjoy his work in other genres. A lot. But here in this post bop, even hard bop, setting, in my opinion, he puts together one of his most consistent sets. Impressive for such a young player, with an equally young backing group.

I want to place the much-sampled 'Cantaloupe Island' (a wonderful, loose, funky work out) aside for a moment. It's a standout, and for the casual jazz listener, a great way in to this album. But for me the treasures are in the whole product as a single statement, rather than a single track.

Very much an improv-based exploration of ideas and themes, (taking their starting points from Greek myths) the music ranges across styles of free, bop, funk and modal jazz. With a fine collection of sidemen (Williams & Carter for rhythm and Hubbard on cornet) the material Hancock has written is handled wonderfully. It's an especially warm-sounding album, with inspired soloing (standard for much jazz, I know) especially from Hubbard on tracks like 'Cantaloupe Island' and 'One Finger Snap' or my favourite, 'Oliloqui Valley' with its deceptively gentle introduction and lurking bursts of energy. 'One Finger Snap' really steams ahead and lifts the pulse, making for a punchy opening to the record, with Hubbard exploding and Williams throwing in those unexpected snare snaps, rim shots and tom fills.

'Empyrean Isles' does what much jazz is known for doing exceedingly well; it allows but a single phrase or a melody or two to support solos and improv, giving everyone a welcome amount of freedom. The listener can hear the joy with which these tracks were performed and Hancock is in control without hogging the spotlight, giving everyone space, especially in the exploratory closing track 'The Egg.'

Much like his wonderful follow up 'Maiden Voyage' (which takes its thematic starting point from the sea) this record feels vital every time I play it, and reveals Hancock's deft touch, both for rhythm playing and soloing. A real treat. Five stars for me.

Note: The Rudy Van Gelder remaster includes two alternates takes ('One Finger Snap'& 'Oliloqui Valley')and is, as with all of his reissues that I've heard, of excellent sound quality.
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