Herbie Hancock - Maiden Voyage / Empyrean Isles

Blue Note

Original release dates: June 1964 / March 1965
Recorded by Rudy Van Gelder at Englewood Cliffs

Maiden Voyage cover Empyrean Isles cover

Herbie Hancock (piano)
George Coleman (tenor sax)
Freddie Hubbard (trumpet)
Ron Carter (bass)
Tony Williams (drums)


Maiden Voyage: Maiden Voyage, The Eye of the Hurricane, Little One, Survival of the Fittest, Dolphin Dance
Empyrean Isles: One Finger Snap, Oliloqui Valley, Cantaloupe Island, (The Egg)


“Maiden Voyage” is one of the key albums in the development of modern jazz. It is easy to locate it as an outcome of Miles Davis’ mid sixties approach; modal jazz, time-no changes. The band for “Maiden Voyage” is Miles’ short lived band involving George Coleman – the same band that played at the Philharmonic Hall concert – but with Freddie Hubbard replacing Miles Davis on trumpet. Much of the music is based around the idea of taking further the freedom of expression discovered in modal jazz. However, this does not take into account the originality of this work itself nor the real wonder of the performance produced by these five musicians. You can take five talented musicians, give them the score to “Maiden Voyage” or “Little One” and you won’t get the magical quality of this great recording. It is a case of a young composer – all the compositions are by Herbie Hancock – at the peak of his creativity assembling a group of musicians who outperform every expectation. We include the first three tracks of the earlier album “Empyrean Isles” which features the same band (with the exception that George Coleman is absent) and is based on the same approach. “The Egg”, a piece of improvised free jazz, can be neglected unless you appreciate free jazz.

Before the success of “Empyrean Isles” and “Maiden Voyage” Herbie Hancock had already emerged as a composer and leader in his own right. He had a classical music education as a child and emerged as a protégé aged 11 playing Mozart with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He listened to pianists Oscar Petersen, George Shearing, McCoy Tyner, Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans and enrolled at Grinnel College where he eventually graduated as a double major in music and engineering. Along the way, Donald Byrd gave him his first break. And then came Miles Davis. His first three Blue Note albums had been a success. “Takin’ Off”, his first album had even produced the crossover hit “Watermellon Man” for Monto Santamaria. “My Point Of View “ and “Inventions and Dimensions” showed that he was determined not to fall into the trap of endlessly trying to repeat the success of “Watermelon Man” (though “Blind Man, Blind Man” comes close). The watchword was experimentation coupled with commercial success and this was to be the style of his long and illustrious career. More than once has been identified as one of the most important American composers of the twentieth century.

So how do we sum up the importance of “Maiden Voyage / Empyrean Isles”? There is the brilliance of the performances and the innovation of the compositions. And there is the fact that they are intended as jazz tone poems.

Many of these tracks – “Maiden Voyage”, “Survival Of The Fittest”, “The Eye of the Hurricane”, “Dolphin Dance”, “Oliloqui Valley”, “Cantaloupe Island” amongst them - require to be considered as jazz tone poems that are directly descriptive of some particular aspect of the outside world. This is demanded to some great extent by Herbie Hancock’s own liner notes. The whole of “Maiden Voyage” is described as a project about the conquest of the sea and its uncertainties while “Empyrean Isles” tilts at discovery of tropical far off places. This might be described as music with a programme, rather like that found in the romantic classical composers, and perhaps specifically here (perhaps through the debt to Bill Evans) Claude Debussey and Ravel. In comparison the abstract jazz of most bop and in particular Miles Davis’ or Ornette Coleman’s or Chris Potter’s music is rather more like the music of Vivaldi or Bach which exists in its own intellectual space and needs no justifying reference to nature. Or to take a somewhat more distant analogy, that abstract jazz is more like an abstract painting that depends for relevance on its own internal references whereas the jazz tone poem is rather more like representational painting, portrait or landscape. So when listening to “Dolphin Dance” it really is possible to imagine a bright sunny day, looking down from a speeding boat and seeing dolphins frisking around you in the water. Or in “The Eye of the Hurricane”, you really can imagine being a storm chaser reaching the storm centre and experiencing the dead calm that can be found there. Or in “Survival Of The Fittest” it’s not too difficult to imagine a parched savanna where antelope drink at a quiet watering hole only to be suddenly placed in mortal danger by a pride of hunting lions.

If this is what you want from music, if it helps in engaging with it, there’s nothing wrong with this. However there are many, including this writer, who argue that the need for a programme, the need to refer to an external nature that is represented, is a step backwards, something akin to denying modern art and insisting that all paintings should be representational. Of course, Herbie Hancock is not saying that and this was a singular departure in his music that did not prevent him from remaining in the abstract with Miles Davis and onward into fusion.

So is the music of “Maiden Voyage” and “Empyrean Isles” any the lesser given that its composer sought to appeal to a programme, a direct representation of nature? We think not. And this is where the brilliance of the performances and the innovation of the compositions comes in.

The space for creativity that had been discovered in modal jazz via George Russell’s pioneering reassessment of musical tradition and Miles Davis’ realisation of the potential of this departure with “Kind Of Blue” and “Milestones” could still be widened. The time–no changes approach developed within Miles Davis’ second great quintet and culminating in the astonishing achievement of “Nefertiti” was still being fashioned. With young, mercurial drummer Tony Williams on board, innovation and creativity was all but demanded. And in George Coleman, Freddie Hubbard and Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock had musicians to occupy that space with rare intelligence and beauty.

To take the main example, in the title track “Maiden Voyage” the structural similarity to the modal jazz of “Kind Of Blue” is evident, particularly in “So What”. Both pieces are based around a 32 bar AABA structure which forms a kind of blues without any of the expected blues like resolutions. Both are modal and based largely on the Dorian scale. In both the shift from D to Eb in the A to B sections is a half tone that sets off a tension releasing flurry of activity. However with “Maiden Voyage” Herbie Hancock takes this form into a new dimension with the use of 7sus chords.

The chord structure of “So What” is disarmingly simple:
Section A[Bar number (1-8) Dm7]A[(9-16) Dm7], B[(17-24) Ebm7], A[(25-32) Dm7].

Whereas in “Maiden Voyage” we get:
Section A[Bar number (1-4) D7sus4, (5-8) F7 sus4], A[(9-12) D7sus4, (13 - 16) F7 sus4], B[(17-20) Eb7sus4, (21 – 24) Db7sus4], A[(25-28) D7sus4, (29-32) F7 sus4].

No-one had ever composed a jazz piece before that was based solely on a progression of sus7 chords like this. This is radical because the accepted wisdom is that sus chords are meant to resolve into a more accepted harmonic stability; they are meant to be nothing more than a transition from one form to another that has been delayed – or suspended – but in “Maiden Voyage” that resolution never takes place. The suspended or sus chord is a major triad in which the major third has been replaced by a perfect fourth; the resolution of this note played early is delayed until a later major triad containing a perfect third picks it up and repairs the centre of sonority. Typically, the sus chord might first resolve to an ordinary dominant seventh chord before resolving to the tonic. However, in “Maiden Voyage” these resolutions never come. The new space for innovation is the melodic freedom that can be achieved playing in the Dorian mode over the collision of the suspended fourths with the implied major triads.

A useful recent discussion on this is viewable here.

And then there is the realisation. What can be said about George Coleman’s saxophone solo early on in “Maiden Voyage”. Though just 32 bars long it is almost certainly one of the most evocative and beautiful saxophone solos in the whole of jazz. Right up front here is the matter of tone. John Coltrane’s frequent visits to the Selmer workshops in Elkhart, Indiana to attempt to get his reed (and hence his sound) right testify to the fact that getting the tone of a saxophone right is of overriding importance. (He ended up using a heavy reed that required huge blowing strength to get the distinctive sound he wanted). At the other end of the scale, the great Hank Mobley never seemed to get the tone of his instrument right. So that in most of his great recordings (for example with Miles Davis in the recently released Blackhawk sessions of 1961 and on most of his Blue Note releases) his sound is perilously close to the sound of a synthesized saxophone, a quality that seems to have been made all the worse by modern 24 bit remastering of his recordings. And, of course, Hank Mobley had played on “My Point Of View”, Herbie Hancock’s 1963 album where the tone again sounds poor. Contrast this with the tone achieved by George Coleman on “Maiden Voyage"; it has a distinctive hue, a richness and complexity that stays in the mind.

The structure of George Coleman’s solo on Maiden Voyage has been written about in detail by jazz guitarist Steve Kahn and you can download his handwritten transcription of those wonderful 32 bars (his version is transcribed to Ab). As Steve Kahn says: “ As Coleman's solo begins, the rhythm section drops down further in dynamics giving his smokey sounding tenor sax a place to begin. For most soloists, for most solos, this is always a desirable point of departure. Throughout the solo, he seems to play many phrases which have groupings of two 16th-notes to an 8th-note or quarter note. You can see this in bars: 1-8; 11; 13-15; and 30. Then, as the harmonic movement would indicate, at [B], his rhythmic activity picks-up and he unleashes a completely relaxed 8-bars of double time which contains all the classic linear language that one would expect from a great jazz player. Though the solo is only one chorus, Coleman makes beautiful usage of the device of anticipating the next chord change during the previous bar……… What does it say about a solo, which is only one chorus in length, that it seems to be longer when one is listening to it, and yet, it is almost a work of perfection? It stands as proof that great playing, a great recording, is not necessarily marked by performances where everyone plays 10 choruses and each track is 20-minutes long. Though this is an 8-minute performance!”

This is followed by Freddie Hubbard’s remarkable solo which stretches over 64 bars (two choruses). This achieves fiery heights that have led many to question whether he was really in tune with this music. But it is just this balance that this music needs, together with Tony Williams’ drumming, what makes sure that this is no safe, pastoral view but rather a challenge to any safe place of rest.

“Little One” also appears on the Miles Davis Album “E.S.P.” and there is the opportunity to compare how the ‘second great quintet’ handles the song compared with the “Maiden Voyage” ensemble. In particular whereas George Coleman’s playing retains all the magic and mystery of his performance on the version on “Maiden Voyage”, Wayne Shorter seems much less inside events in his soloing and comping work as the track appears on “E.S.P.” Miles Davis stamps his contributions to the track on “E.S.P.” with a characteristic breathlessness and obliqueness that brings out almost a sense of menace whereas Freddie Hubbard’s playing on “Little One” is altogether more lyrical and transcendental. The same can be said of Herbie Hancock’s piano playing and Ron Carter’s bass playing on both versions; the approach is much more lyrical on the “Maiden Voyage” version, especially in the way that the bass establishes the melodic centre of the piece. Perhaps there really was a special magic in the air that day out at Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs recording studio.

More than a word should be said about Tony Williams’ drumming on both “Maiden Voyage” and “Empyrean Isles”; it is outstanding. Listen for example to “Survival of the Fittest” or “One Finger Snap”; it is the drum pulse that is the real bedrock of movement and development in these pieces. As in his playing on “Nefertiti”, so much of the basic rhythm is carried on Ron Carter’s base playing that the drum riffs can be loose, probing, driving the players to find new avenues for their creativity. His playing on “One Finger Snap” forms a rightful conclusion to the whole piece as the wonderfully non linear drum solo could have been followed by nothing else.

“Cantaloupe Island” is perhaps the best know piece on “Empyrean Isles”. It is built around an infectious blues like riff played on piano and opens up space for some very fine soloing. It is perhaps the most accessible of all these tracks and it is no surprise that this has become a widely covered standard.

Overall this music retains its spirit of inspiration some forty years on; it is right that Herbie Hancock should be recongised as a major composer as well as a performer and that so many of these pieces have become modern jazz standards. It shows how imagination, creativity and beauty can go hand in hand with music that is innovative and compelling.

Star Rating *****

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Anonymous said...

Where it says: "...produced the crossover hit 'Watermellon Man' for Monto Santamaria"

I believe it should be "'Watermelon Man' by Mongo Santamaría"

Anonymous said...

Also, album titles should be italicized.