Herbie Hancock-The Prisoner.

Label: Blue Note Records.  

In the summer of 1968 Herbie Hancock left Miles Davis Quintet to form his own group. This was a risky move, but one he felt he had to make to develop as a composer, bandleader and pianist.

During the summer of 1968 Herbie Hancock also released his sixth album for Blue Note Records, Speak Like A Child. It was one of the most ambitious albums of his career, 

Speak Like A Child was an album that featured Herbie Hancock’s own philosophy which had been inspired by his childhood. The only problem was he knew his music didn’t reflect what was going on in modern day America. When he turned on his television there were reports about the economy which had taken a downturn, the riots in cities across America which was still blighted by racism. 

Instead, Herbie Hancock wanted to offer “a forward look into what could be a bright future “ on Speak Like A Child. He wanted to rediscover some of the  qualities of childhood: “we lose and wish we could have back — purity, spontaneity. When they do return to us, we’re at our best.” With all this in mind, Speak Like a Child where the listener can: “think and feel in terms of hope, and the possibilities of making our future less impure.”

Speak Like A Child featured Herbie Hancock’s sextet, and was recorded at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, on the ‘6th’ and ‘9th’ of March 1968. Joining pianist Herbie Hancock was drummer Mickey Roker, bassist Ron Carter and an unusual horn section that featured alto flautist Jerry Dodgion, bass trombonist Peter Phillip and Thad Jones on flugelhorn. Taking charge of production was Duke Pearson on a swinging album of hard bop that to some extent, was an extension of Maiden Voyage.

When Speak Like A Child was released it was well received by critics. However, just like so many ambitious and innovative albums critics and record buyers didn’t quite “get” Speak Like A Child. Despite that, Herbie Hancock was determined to continue to create music that pushed musical boundaries and took jazz in a new direction for his next albumThe Prisoner, which has just been reissued by Blue Note Records as part of their Tone Poet series.

The Prisoner.

By the time Herbie Hancock was ready to begin work on The Prisoner, executives at Blue Note Records knew it was his swansong for the label that had been his home since he released his debut Takin’ Off in 1962. Seven years had passed and now he was preparing to record his seventh album before signing a lucrative contract with Warner Bros. Records. However,  Herbie Hancock was determined to go out on a high with the most ambitious album of his career The Prisoner.

Herbie Hancock said that The Prisoner was dedicated to the memory of Dr Martin Luther King, and was a “social statement written in music.” The Prisoner is now regarded as one of Herbie Hancock’s most ambitious albums and his greatest and grandest album since My Point of View. It finds Herbie Hancock who had just turned twenty-nine, leading an eleven piece band that featured some of the best and most inventive and imaginative jazz musicians. 

Just like Speak Like A Child, Duke Pearson produced The Prisoner which was recorded at Van Gelder Studio,Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Joining Herbie Hancock who switches between acoustic and electric piano are drummer Tootie Heath, bassist Buster Williams. They were joined by flautist Herbert Laws, trombonist Garnett Brown, bass trombonists Tony Studd and Jack Jeffers, Johnny Coles on flugelhorn,bass clarinetist Romeo Penque and Jerome Richardson who also played flute. Joe Henderson switched between tenor saxophone and alto flute on the five tracks that became The Prisoner.

Herbie Hancock wrote I Have a Dream, The Prisoner, He Who Lives in Fear and Promise of the Sun. The other track was Firewater a Buster Williams composition. These tracks were recorded on the ‘18th,’ ‘21st’ and ’23rd’ of April 1969 with Duke Pearson, and once the album was completed it was scheduled for release later that year. 

Not only was The Prisoner Herbie Hancock’s swansong for Blue Note Records, it was also his most ambitious album. The concept behind The Prisoner was a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King who had been assassinated on April the ‘4th’ 1968 aged just thirty-nine. Herbie Hancock wants the music to evoke his spirit and dreams through what spacious, experimental post bop. For much of the album, the music doesn’t follow conventional patterns, and at times can be challenging. However, the music is still melodic and Herbie Hancock remembered to leave space in his compositions and arrangements during what’s still an accessible album with a story behind each composition.  

Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous phrase I Have a Dream, lent its name to the album opener. It’s an ambitious eleven minute epic, and was followed by the title-track. Its composer, Herbie Hancock, explained that The Prisoner is about: “how black people have been imprisoned for a long time.”  Firewater was meant to sympbolise the duality of the oppressor and the oppressed. Fire was meant to symbolise the heat in violence as well as the abuse of power, while the feeling of water recalls Dr. Martin Luther King. He Who Lives In Fear refers to Dr King as he “had to live in an atmosphere charged with intimidation.” Herbie Hancock explained how Promise Of The Sun which closes the album symbolises: “how the sun promises life and freedom to all living things, and yet blacks are not yet free.” 

During The Prisoner, Herbie Hancock, Johnny Coles on flugelhorn and Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone and alto flute exchange a series of breathtaking solos and drive each other to greater heights. Joe Henderson plays a starring role and was picked out for praise by calling him one of the finest flautists classical or jazz music. That was high praise but it’s soon apparent why.

It’s a case of  expect the unexpected during the solos which take twists and turns veering between alluring and provocative, to emotive, haunting, and soul-baring. There’s a starkness to the melodies which became sombre, and ruminative and invites reflection. No longer is there anything to celebrate and the joyous is gone after Dr. Martin Luther King was ruthlessly and heartlessly gunned down. As a result, the music makes the listener contemplate and wonder what might have been? It’s a powerful and poignant album from Herbie Hancock who was leaving Blue Note Records on a high.

When critics heard The Prisoner, the majority wrote positive reviews praising an ambitious, innovative and cerebral concept album. However, just like Speak Like A Child some critics didn’t seem to understand the album or the concept behind it. Ironically both Speak Like A Child and The Prisoner are regarded as classics.

When The Prisoner was released later in 1969, Herbie Hancock was a happy man and said: “Generally speaking, I’ve been able to get closer to the real me with this album than on any other previous one.” 

Just like Speak Like A Child, he had also succeed in making an album that was accessible. “I want my music to evolve toward a point where it can contain that part of me that is relatively most musical to people–but in a jazz climate that can communicate to the general public. I am trying to write hummable tunes with a kind of rhythmic element people can be infected with, and one key to the rhythmic thing is the duple meter. People can identify more with duple meter, so the drummer does play a meter but does not, however, play rock per se, so you hear the drummer playing jazz.” 

He went on to say: “Harmony is the element that offers even more flexibility. The differentiated positioning of chords in my Maiden Voyage is an example, and Speak like A Child is somewhat like a pop ballad. It’s an extension of the concept of simple melody and rhythm related to a more advanced harmony. It’s like a huge door with a lot of little doors to the outside public and I’m trying different doors.”

Herbie Hancock’s decision to try “different doors” meant he was able to compose and record music that was modern, exciting, experimental, innovative and different to everything that had gone before. He was ensuring jazz evolved and to do this, he expanded his band and added different instruments including the bass trombone and bass clarinet which other bands didn’t use. 

What also helped he explained was that: “All my soloists, play a different style, but some part of each is related to each other, and I do some of all of their thing.” This he does throughout The Prisoner. 

Different accents, clusters, splashes and sounds are used throughout The Prisoner by Herbie Hancock’s and his band combine musical genres to paint pictures and create music that is melodic, rich in imagery and full of emotion on what’s a powerful and poignant concept album that remembered Dr. Martin Luther King on what’s a now considered a jazz classic. 

Herbie Hancock-The Prisoner.

1 Comment

  1. The Prisoner is a great album. I don’t know Speak Like A Child. Another one on the ‘to buy’ list. Lol.

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