Deep Dive: Herbie Hancock’s Takin’ Off

This year, Jazz88 is sharing space with the team from iHeart Media, including KFAN, while our North Minneapolis studios and offices are undergoing renovations. Turns out, these sports people also know their music, and we’ve received a couple of thoughtful jazz gifts from Mr. Paul Allen. His gifts have been welcome, thoughtful, and, most importantly, musically on point. Herbie Hancock is my personal favorite jazz writer, so to get my hands on this 1962 effort is a real treat. Though this is Hancock’s debut as a leader, he was already making waves in the jazz world by backing up Donald Byrd and Coleman Hawkins.

The strength of Hancock as a writer and performer on this release brought him into the fold with Miles Davis to become part of the nucleus of Davis’ “Second Great Quintet.” Clearly, this album worked out to be one hell of a business card, but on top of that, it’s a joy to listen to. Later Herbie Hancock records would frequently pull in players from his work with Miles, including Tony Williams on drums and Ron Carter on bass. With this record we get to hear Hancock with a rhythm section that hews closer to the center of the hard bop universe. The grooves aren’t searching, prodding, or dynamic. To my ears, the grooves are deeper in the pocket with transitions, fills, and decorations that sound more Jazz Messengers than 60s era Davis. I find this doubly interesting because Billy Higgins’ best known work would find him way more “outside” than anything on this record, but on this date, his playing is solid, driving, and steeped in the tradition of the great drummers of the 40s and 50s.

This mix of a more traditional rhythm section supporting Hancock’s forward-thinking writing makes for a great combination. The tune “The Maze” particularly stands out to me, thanks to the more abstract open soloing section, filled with adventurous stabs from the band sliding right into a hard swinging solo section. As much as I love what Wayne Shorter would do on later records alongside Hancock, there’s something invigorating about hearing as deep and hearty a sax player as Dexter Gordon dancing over these charts. It’s fair to say this album is a bit of a crossroads, generation-wise. Dexter Gordon is seventeen years older than Hancock, but he certainly doesn’t sound like the odd man out. His melody playing alongside Freddie Hubbard is beautifully intertwined and his solos always rise to the occasion.

And let’s be fair here: “Watermelon Man” is a top shelf jazz song. It has a groove on it, but it predates the real arrival of full on groove-oriented jazz albums. To this end, I think “Watermelon Man” is a very important spot on the road map for where jazz would head, as backbeat-oriented tunes came more into the fold.

Thanks to Paul Allen for bringing this one into our collection, and I hope you’re ready to spend an afternoon diving in.

I hope you’ll tune in to today’s Afternoon Cruise we set sail at 3 PM! – Sean McPherson

Thanks for checking this deep dive out! If you have music suggestions, contact me at

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