Takin’ Off – The 50th Anniversary of Herbie Hancock’s debut solo album

By Mark Youll | 1st March, 2012 | articles |

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Thrust into a glut of great jazz albums released either side of Spring, 1962 - Mingus' Epitaph, Cecil Taylor's Nefertiti, Sonny Rollins' The Bridge, and Night Train by the Oscar Peterson trio - and in keeping with his lofty standing as rising young pianist with the Donald Byrd/Pepper Adams group, Herbie Hancock's debut solo album, the aptly-titled Takin' Off (released on the Blue Note label) was met by a warm ovation from U.S audiences, quickly brought to a boil by the record's mesmeric lift off piece, and what would become one of Hancock's top shelf trophy tunes, 'Watermelon Man'.

As well as serving a suitable appetiser for what the balance of the album would throw up, Hancock's simple, gospel-infused homage to " the cry of the watermelon man" - who, as described by Hancock in Leonard Feather's original 1962 sleeve notes, would be ".. making his rounds through the back streets and alleys of Chicago's south side, the wheels on his wagon beat out the rhythm on the cobblestones" - would flip over into the mainstream, creeping into the Top 100 ( latin jazz percussionist Mongo Santamaria would make it a pop hit the following year) , tailing a 'hard-bop' trend leading contemporaries like Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck's group had earlier sparked (both scoring radio hits in 1959 with ‘So What’ and ‘Take Five’ respectively), issuing records that zeroed in on simple melodies, breezy horn figures and light sailing, swinging rhythm parts, stylistically, not a million miles away from what had blown across much of jazz music’s key recordings during it’s ‘cool’ period of the early to mid-1950s.

“Away from the glare of the brass workouts that would dominate the arrangements Hancock prepped for this date, it was the crack and creativity of the underlying trio that pushed the record's momentum along”

Produced by Blue Note co-founder Alfred Lion, and recorded in a single session – May 28th ,1962 – at engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s illustrious studio up in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey – a familiar haunt for Hancock, having been holed up there for three separate album sessions (Chant, Freeform, and Royal Flush) with Donald Byrd in 1961 – the six snappy compositions penned by the prodigious 22-year old were readily rehearsed and recorded by a quartet of Blue Note regulars: Dexter Gordon on tenor saxophone, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, bassist Butch Warren and session great Billy Higgins on drums, a dream cast of credibles that would, incidentally, assemble again later that summer to record Dexter’s masterwork Go album.

Given Hancock’s crude, ‘funky’ prose and typically blasé accompaniment throughout much of Takin’ Off‘s thirty minute flight, it came as no surprise the band on this date, particularly Gordon and Hubbard, would unduly deliver some of their finest recorded performances away from their spotlight as band leaders. Underpinned by Higgins’ loose swing playing, with coarse, baggy back-beats beefed up by Warren’s strong, buttery bass lines, the charts left Hubbard and Gordon to drive a lot of the material free reign, with solo breaks erupting out from Hancock’s groovy melody figures, often appearing to recharge the soloist, notably on the latin-laced ‘Driftin” and waltzer ‘Three Bags Full’ – a title Hancock dreamt up because “each of the soloists plays out of a different bag” – stressing the seductive contrast of Hubbard’s punchy chops against Gordon’s lazy bop gymnastics.

Away from the glare of the brass workouts that would dominate the arrangements Hancock prepped for this date, it was the crack and creativity of the underlying trio that pushed the record’s momentum along, albeit on the album’s lone ballad, the beautiful ‘Alone and I’, in which Warren’s rich bass and fluttering brushwork from Higgins, cradle an emotive piano solo that the composer himself confessed one of his best. The minor-keyed (and majorly overlooked) The Maze (which offers up an inspiring solo from Dexter) furthered Hancock’s formula to impart space for his rhythm section to stretch out from the comfort of straight ahead patterns, freeing Higgins and Warren to garnish proceedings with flashes of pounding percussion and time signature shifts, improvised over a bed of block chords essayed by Hancock.

Often noted as the album that impelled Miles Davis to draft Hancock as pianist for his new quintet in 1963 (a post he would maintain until 1968), the record would haul Hancock to the forefront of a contemporary scene his work still marks to this day. Owing to the kind of coverage and wide acclaim Takin’ Off has justly deserved since its release fifty years ago this year, mostly accrued to the album’s most obvious draw in’ Watermelon Man’ – having been regurgitated on numerous occasions (and in as many guises) by Hancock himself, most famously during his Headhunters and Rock It projects, as well as been granted a pop permit, covered and sampled by a weighty list of luminaries such as Madonna, Quincy Jones, the JBs, Sly and Robbie and LL Cool J – it’s little wonder the album sounds as fresh today as it did back then , spurring a whole new generation of listeners to discover, and young musicians to take off, just as Herbie did.

Mark Youll

  • Graham

    Well done Mark, a literary masterpiece, a literal rollercoaster ride of epic proportions and yet with an added pique of unhindered mint.