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Herbie Hancock Heads a Quintet of Pianists

September 22, 2002|DON HECKMAN

A fairly convincing case can be made for Herbie Hancock as the most influential jazz pianist-composer of the past few decades. His impact--in terms of harmonic innovations as a pianist and stylistically omnivorous compositional advances--has been widely felt.

Paradoxically, one could also suggest that the very restlessness of his musical imagination, his seeming lack of desire to remain in any single mode for an extended period of time, has both expanded the breadth of his influence while, perhaps, diminishing the fullness of what might have been produced by a more focused creative vision.

Still, in less capable hands, Hancock's sudden shifts from acoustic to electric, from recollections of the '60s and cutting-edge duets with Wayne Shorter to pop music crossovers, could have had far less consequential results. Regardless of what might have been, his eclectic productivity has proved a boon to his record labels and his many, all-accepting fans.

Most of what is in "The Herbie Hancock Box" (****, Columbia Legacy) has been released earlier in one form or another, although some tracks have only been issued in Japan. But the package, which samples 25 albums from a 17-year period beginning in 1976, provides an overview of the 62-year-old artist's remarkable efforts during an era of dramatically shifting currents in jazz and pop music.

The CDs are thematically structured. The first two are largely dedicated to acoustic performances with VSOP, Chick Corea, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. The third CD dips into Hancock's electric efforts from albums such as "Headhunters," "Death Wish," "Manchild," etc. And the fourth CD focuses on such crossover releases as "Future Shock," "Mr. Hands" and "Dedication."

The collection is a remarkable chronicle of a compelling musical mind. Whatever favorites one might have, the quality levels--in terms of concept and performance--are universally high.

I'm not convinced, however, that organizing the collection thematically rather than chronologically was the wisest decision. It would have been far more interesting to hear the projects in sequence, to hear whatever linkages might exist, elusive though they may be, among Hancock's shifting musical perspectives.

Several other first-rate pianists have current albums in release. Andrew Hill, 65, is a slightly older contemporary of Hancock's. But, despite his considerable talents, he has never commanded comparable audience attention. Like Hancock, Hill has always insisted on following his own musical path, often darting into unexpected byways. "A Beautiful Day" (*** 1/2, Palmetto Records) offers a vivid portrait of Hill's intensely personal viewpoint. Composing for an ensemble comparable to a big jazz band, he has produced a collection that brilliantly integrates solos in the fabric of the full ensemble.

Hill's willingness to let his players boldly improvise--lurking, blending and battling with the composed sections--makes for extraordinary music. Good examples: John Savage's flute and Marty Ehrlich's bass clarinet on "Faded Beauty"; the use of Jose D'Avila's roving tuba as an organizing element, especially in passages with unusual meters.

At 27, Jason Moran has miles to go before he reaches Hancock or Hill's level of maturity. But his solo performances on "Modernistic" (*** 1/2, Blue Note) suggest that he is headed in the right direction.

Grasping a large chunk of music history, Moran performs works by stride pianist-composer James P. Johnson ("You've Got to Be Modernistic"), classical composer Robert Schumann (the song "Auf Einer Burg") and Afrika Bambaata (the rap classic "Planet Rock"). Add to that a pair of Moran originals, "Gangsterism on Irons" and "Gangsterism on a Lunch Table" (continuing entries in a series of works based on Andrew Hill's "Erato"), and an idiosyncratic rendering of the standard "Body and Soul," and you've got a program demanding enough to challenge the most mature pianist.

Moran handles everything superbly, enlivening some tracks with manipulated piano sounds that John Cage would surely have loved, and tossing in some pre-recorded overlays, as well. But at the heart of everything is a remarkably contained and focused musical imagination. Already a major talent, Moran gets better and better with every outing.

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