Herbie, we hardly know ye -- and that's good 

What do you do with a fellow like Herbie Hancock?

I have a catalogue that classifies the genres in which certain musicians work, and under the Hancock entry is this eclectic mix: hard bop, cool, blues, jazz, early jazz rock,contemporary funk.

Whew!

I ask again: What do you do with a musician like that?

When the young pianist blew out of Chicago and into New York in 1961, the jazz world didn't know what it was in for. By the time he joined the Miles Davis quintet in 1965 -- with Miles, the ever-tasteful bassist Ron Carter, the sublime saxophonist Wayne Shorter and enfant terrible drummer Tony Williams -- Herbie already had cut at least two solo outings and his head was open to the progressive directions in which Miles was taking this music of ours.

"Maiden Voyage" [Blue Note, 1965], was his third release as a solo artist and he showed all the natural chops that justify the hard-bop and cool designations.

And with "Speak Like A Child" [Blue Note, 1968], arrangements emphasized the masterly compositions, especially the title cut and a sassy little number titled "And What If I Don't?", a personal favorite of mine.
But a year later, Hancock was thrust headlong into the burgeoning fusion movement -- a brainchild of Miles -- and he came away a man transformed. "Fat Albert Rotunda" [Warner Brothers, 1969] sounds dated only because the instrumental technology was a tad primitive by today's standards. But that album steams like rice in a pressure cooker and gives a hint of what was to come later for Herbie. And let us not forget his contributions that same year to Miles' "In a Silent Way" [Columbia, 1969.]

Sometime during the early 1970s, I had a fan's falling out with Herbie, however. I didn't know what to expect from him after the success of "Headhunters" [Columbia, 1973], coming as it did in the context of the prevailing disco rage and what I still regard as the general "dumbing down" of music for sophisticated listeners -- and I mean "sophisticated" in the polyglot and not the snooty sense of the word.

Having played with a powerhouse drummer like Tony Williams, I couldn't understand his fascination with electronic percussion; the platter spinning DJs who merely interrupted the music, for all I could hear; and the need to leave the elegant leader's position at the keyboard to leap about downstage with an electronic piano designed to look like a guitar drooping from a strap over his shoulder.

The repetitive licks of "Headhunters" and the hip-hop monotony of the very successful "Rockit" single made no sense to me.

However, it's easy to hear where it came from. And I'll give Herbie this: He sallied forth into those funky territories with all the enthusiasm that characterized his work when it was dressed in more traditional garb.

And now he is 60. That's another tough one, for, like the to-soon-deceased Tony Williams, I've always thought of Herbie as one of the young guys. And because of that, I always have found his work interesting, despite my lack of enthusiasm for some of it.

But there he is, riding the pianistic tiger with pal Chick Corea, or decked out red leather pants behind and electronic keyboard or a concert grand, making sure that we all understand that music is music is music. So I'll bet a set of guitar strings that he finds the labels in my catalogue as artificial as I find some of his forays into funk.

But, never mind. Sometimes it feels like we've watched him grow up before our eyes. Now beginning his seventh decade, I'll bet we can look forward to more of Herbie's freshness. On that, I'm willing to bet the whole guitar.