Revinylization #24: Blue Note Classic Vinyl: Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage & Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch!

In the mid-'60s, modern jazz pivoted. Charlie Parker, the previous era's key revolutionary, had been dead for a decade. "Hard bop," the soul-and-back-beat variant of Parker's bebop, was running out of steam. The Beatles were rocking the world, and jazz would never recover as a branch of "popular music." In response or indifference to these tough transitions, jazz musicians set sail on several experimental paths. In those first few years, the most adventurous voyages were mapped and carved out at Blue Note Records.

Two of the best—and most widely varying—of those ventures have just been reissued in Blue Note's Classic Vinyl series, in excellent sound: Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage and Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch!

Hancock was in his second year as the pianist in what came to be called Miles Davis's "second great quintet" when he recorded Maiden Voyage in July 1965. It was his fifth album as a leader for Blue Note, his second since joining Miles's band. His evolution is dramatic. His earlier albums have more of a hard-bop feel (he was playing with hard-bop trumpeter Donald Byrd at the time); Maiden Voyage—and to a slightly lesser degree, Empyrean Isles, recorded a year earlier—reflect Miles's more limber modal strains. Hancock layers this influence with an infectious, almost pop melodic flair, notably in the title tune on Maiden and in "Cantaloupe Island" on Empyrean. This cool-breeze side of Blue Note's new directions can also be heard on cuts from Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder and Horace Silver's Song for My Father (both from 1963).

Hancock's band is a Blue Note classic two-horn quintet, with George Coleman (who'd recently left Miles) on tenor sax and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. This is not remotely "smooth jazz" or "new age." Call it "hard modal" or "forceful lyricism." There's a backbeat, but it's enveloped in lush harmonies and lithe rhythms; within the backbeat (at least on Maiden Voyage) there's a head-spinning polyrhythmic syncopation.

This last feat is the work of Tony Williams, at 19 already the most inventive drummer on the scene, an orchestrator of the trap set who made even the reigning champs of the day, Max Roach and Elvin Jones, seem rigid. Williams, too, had just joined Miles's band—as had Ron Carter, this album's bassist. It was Williams, more than any other sideman, who jolted Miles (and Hancock) in a freer direction.


A major influence for Williams was Eric Dolphy, the alto saxophonist, flutist, and bass clarinetist who a few years earlier had prodded John Coltrane on his own maiden voyage through the avantgarde. Dolphy's Out to Lunch!, recorded in February 1964, is a masterpiece, and it's as hair-raisingly fresh today as it was nearly 60 years ago. Williams is the drummer on this album, too, and he's a major reason for its freshness. He sets the pulse and simultaneously disrupts it with clangs, rolls, klook-a-mops, and a dozen other styles of riffs and counterpoints that seem random at first hearing—but listen again and you hear that he's the organizing force behind the mayhem. The other players—Dolphy, Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Richard Davis on bass—solo all the time but hew tight to the concept, and it somehow all hangs together. It's astonishing.

Out to Lunch! marked a peak for Dolphy. His earlier works, Outward Bound (also with Hubbard) and Out There (with Carter on cello), both on the Prestige label, veered in this direction, but it took the right combination of freewheeling personnel and patient production to open all the locks. Opening those locks freed Alfred Lion, Blue Note's proprietor, to encourage more adventurous music from his roster, including Andrew Hill's Point of Departure (with Dolphy and Williams), Grachan Moncur's Evolution (with Hutcherson and Williams), and Sam Rivers's Fuchsia Swing Song (with Carter and Williams). Blue Note's progressive roster—and their albums—merged free improvisation with structured composition. As with Hancock and his hard-bop predecessors, you can hear links between the old and the new, even as the new leaps out at you with a shock. Some of Hill's albums and one of Rivers's (Contours) have already been reissued in Blue Note's Classic Vinyl or Tone Poet series. I'm told a Moncur is in the works.

The sound quality on Maiden Voyage and Out to Lunch!—both mastered by Kevin Gray from engineer Rudy Van Gelder's original analog tapes—is very fine. The reissues aren't quite as immersive as the original pressings or the vinyl reissues a few years back on Music Matters Jazz, but they're very close. The horns exude just the right mix of brass and air, and the bass resonates with wood. On Out to Lunch!, Hutcherson's vibes glisten and glow, and Williams's trap set reveals all its components, tones, and dynamics.

Out to Lunch! is the better-sounding of the two—it may be the best-sounding Blue Note of all, on both the original pressing and the MMJ reissue—perhaps in part because there is no piano. The piano was often the weak point on Van Gelder's productions (although it sounds quite good on Maiden Voyage). These reissues lack only the last measure of sparkle from Williams's cymbals, the full body of Dolphy's bass clarinet, and the brimming bouquet of overtones in the air surrounding all the instruments—but, again, they come very close. If I didn't have the original or MMJ pressings for comparison, I'd have no complaints.

Herb Reichert's picture

you really nailed it

thank you for an enlightening read