Recording of July 2019: Takin' Off

Herbie Hancock: Takin' Off
Herbie Hancock, piano; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Dexter Gordon, tenor saxophone; Butch Warren, double bass; Billy Higgins, drums.
Blue Note Records 84109 (LP), 1962, 2019. Alfred Lion, prod.; Rudy Van Gelder, eng.; Don Was, Cem Kurosman, reissue prods.; Kevin Gray, reissue eng. AAA. TT: 39:01
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

From 1962 until now, and counting all formats except downloads, there have been no fewer than 62 releases of Herbie Hancock's debut album, Takin' Off—more than any of his other albums except Maiden Voyage (1965) and Head Hunters (1973). This issue's Recording of the Month comes from an ambitious project referred to by Blue Note Records as the Blue Note 80 Vinyl Reissue Series, which is distinct from the company's Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl Reissue Series, described in Sasha Matson's interview with company President Don Was in the May 2019 Stereophile.

From May of this year through April of 2020, the Blue Note 80 Vinyl Reissue Series LPs are being released in batches, and each batch has a different theme. The first theme—Blue Note Debuts—is intended to highlight inaugural albums by then-new artists, or records by established artists who were making their Blue Note debuts. Other Blue Note Debuts reissues include Grant's First Stand by Grant Green, Open Sesame by Freddie Hubbard, Doin' Allright by Dexter Gordon, and Johnny Griffin's Introducing Johnny Griffin. Future batches of LPs in the Blue Note 80 Vinyl Reissue Series will carry the themes Blue Grooves, Great Reid Miles Covers, Blue Note Live, and Drummer Leaders.

As with the Tone Poet Series, reissues in the Blue Note 80 Series are all-analog in every instance where an analog master tape is available. Such is the case with this most recent reissue of Takin' Off, which was sourced from Rudy Van Gelder's original master tape. The vinyl is 180gm, with Kevin Gray as mastering engineer.

There are a few technical distinctions between the two series: Tone Poet reissues are produced by Joe Harley, pressed in the US at RTI, and packaged in deluxe gatefold jackets, while Blue Note 80 Series records are produced by Don Was and Cem Kurosman, pressed at Optimal Media in Germany, and packaged in standard jackets. There's one other key difference: This reissue of Takin' Off is priced at $25, compared to $35 for the Tone Poet LPs.

Hancock has done so many outstanding things in his career that younger listeners may not realize the importance of his first seven Blue Note albums. Hancock was a child prodigy on classical piano—at age 11, he performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—and had been playing jazz for only a few years when trumpeter Donald Byrd discovered him and introduced him to Blue Note, where he became a valued sideman and a gifted leader. As a member of the Blue Note team, Hancock played on early 1960s albums with Byrd, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Grant Green, Bobby Hutcherson, Sam Rivers, Kenny Dorham, and Hank Mobley.

Takin' Off showcases Hancock as a harmonic genius in the service of the soulful, gospel-style grooves that fit perfectly into the then-evolving Blue Note sound. The proto-funk of "Empty Pockets" is characteristic of the Blue Note style, but Hancock takes it deeper on "Three Bags Full" with sprightly, surprising chord changes.

The sound of this reissue is strong and articulate, with balance and clarity from all the instruments. Freddie Hubbard's trumpet has great presence in all registers, and the unison horn passages from Hubbard and Dexter Gordon on saxophone are bright and full-throated. The subtleties of Billy Higgins' drumming in 6/8 are well articulated as he and Gordon explore John Coltrane/Elvin Jones territory on "Three Bags Full." Hancock's piano is rich and resonant, and Butch Warren's bass is always right there in the mix.

The high point of this record, though, is "Watermelon Man," the first of many jazz standards written by Hancock. A single version of the song cracked the Billboard Top 100 pop charts, and a year later Mongo Santamaría turned its syncopated groove into a Latin jazz classic.

Later still, in 1973, Hancock would rerecord "Watermelon Man"—which, alongside his massive hit "Chameleon," takes up an entire side of the Head Hunters album, itself one of the cornerstones of the 1970s funk revolution. That side could have been titled "Watermelon Man Suite," as Hancock's spongy synthesizer vamp in "Chameleon" is a variation on the left-handed piano figure that guides the track on Takin' Off. The revamped version of "Watermelon Man" dives deeper into the rhythm, setting up an Afro-futurist groove before hitting the theme.

In the early 1960s, Blue Note put together a roster of players who interacted on each other's albums, creating a template for generations of jazz musicians to come. It's no accident that Miles Davis snatched up three of these players—Hancock, drummer Tony Williams, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter—for his second great quintet.—John Swenson

volvic's picture

Time to pay off the CC's and get ready for some heavy Blue Note and Verve purchases. Such good times we live in.