Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage

Herbie Hancock's 1965 quintet album Maiden Voyage holds a firm place as one of the great jazz records of that transformative decade, and a new vinyl edition on Music Matters Jazz—the LA-based house renowned for its audiophile LP reissues of Blue Note titles, and only Blue Note titles—sounds finer than it has on any pressing in 50 years.

Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, tenor saxophonist George Coleman, and drummer Tony Williams had been playing in Miles Davis' band for a couple years (they were joined here by Freddie Hubbard on trumpet), and Miles' influence is clear, especially his modal strains—a style of jazz built on scales, not chords, and emphasizing color and lyricism over speed or hard-bop blues. Maiden Voyage may, in fact, be second only to Miles' Kind of Blue as a paragon of modal jazz.

The music, all composed by Hancock, has the sea as its theme, as did his previous album, Empyrean Isles, which featured the same musicians, except for Coleman, who, story has it, was supposed to show up but didn't, so Hancock shifted gears to a quartet album, which may have been for the good, the spare ensemble proving an ideal fit for the loose-limbed music.

But the quintet was all there for Maiden Voyage, and it's a wondrous mix: the alternating solos, the two-horn harmonies, against Hancock's own blend of Ravelian tone clusters (out-doing the day's reigning champ in this ring, Bill Evans), Carter's weaving anchors, and Williams—God, what an amazing drummer he was, even at age 18.

It's interesting to speculate how this record would have turned out, had Hancock waited a few months, until Wayne Shorter replaced Coleman in Davis' band. Shorter, of course, added an intensity and a compositional complexity that the band previously lacked, but this might have worked against the lushness of Maiden Voyage, where Coleman's romantic tone fits better.

I don't own an original Blue Note pressing of this album, but I have several reissues from the 1970s on—US, French, and Japanese—and this Music Matters Jazz LP is by far the best-sounding. As with MMJ's recent releases, it's mastered at 331/3rpm (not 45, as were all their albums a few years ago), but many of these new 33s are at least as good. This one certainly sounds better—more transparent, airy, and dynamic—than Analogue Productions' 45rpm reissue of some years back. The difference stems, in part, from the improved equipment at Cohearant Audio, where Kevin Gray and MMJ's Ron Rambach mastered this LP—and, in part, from the fact that it was struck from the original master tapes, which, I'm told, were misfiled long ago and were only recently rediscovered.

In any case, the album, originally engineered by Rudy Van Gelder, sounds terrific: the air, brass, and spittle of the horns, the thump of the bass, and especially the snap and sizzle of Williams' drumkit. The weak point is the piano, which sounds a bit muffled, as pianos often do on Van Gelder productions—the result, some have speculated, of corner reflections in his studio at the time. (It may be no coincidence that the best-sounding Blue Notes in this series—Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch, Grant Green's Street of Dreams—don't feature pianos.)

I understand why MMJ has shifted from two-LP 45s to single-disc 33s. The latter are cheaper to produce, ship, and buy—and more convenient to play. Still, given the clear improvement in the mastering gear—not only at MMJ but also at Analogue Productions (where, for instance, the new 33 of Prokofiev's Lt. Kije sounds much better than Classic Records' 4-LP, single-sided 45 pressing of yore)—I can't help but wonder what a new 45 of Maiden Voyage (and other titles) would sound like. Any chance that, someday, we'll get to find out?

COMMENTS
DaveThreshold's picture

Thank you for this great writeup of this album. I posted a pic of Tony's obit on the FB page that had this link.
As an ex-drummer drummer who was very serious about it, I was shocked when Tony died. It still nauseates me to read about his ROUTINE operation in the obit. I scanned/saved it a long time ago. Many modern Jazz drummers in their 20’s-50’s owe their style to Tony, and are not afraid to say so.

DH's picture

The 24-96 remaster from a few years ago is great sounding if anyone wants it in digital.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/jun/11/jazz-great-ornette-coleman-...

Perhaps I'll fire up "The Shape of Jazz to Come" on my time machine (stereo system) this afternoon and revisit Ornette.

Allen Fant's picture

Great review, as always, FK. The original 1st pressing CD sounds excellent as well.

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