Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage

by Collyn Taylor

It takes a great album to speak to the events of the time without using any lyrics while still being revered over five decaqdes after the initial release date. Herbie Hancock’s 1965 album Maiden Voyage does just that. In a time ravaged by racial and political tension, Hancock is able to parlay his skill in modal jazz into an album that is just as erratic as the time when it was released.

A chaotic time, the 60s were headlined politically by the Vietnam War, which was sold to the American public as a war necessary to stop the spread of Communism to South Vietnam (The Antiwar Movement, USHistory.org). Public morale shifted toward an anti-war sentiment as the battle continued to drag on deep into the 60s and even into the 1970s. Organizations like the Students for a Democratic Society, Underground Press Syndicate and Liberation News Service started popping up across the country in hopes of the U.S. pulling out of Vietnam (Barringer, Mark; The Anti-War Movement in the United States).

Soon, protests started across college campuses and things turned hostile toward the activists with Conservative Alameda County Board of Supervisors member Joseph Bort calling the means Califonia protesters used “tantamount to treason,” (The Pacifica Radio/UC Berkeley Social Activism Sound Recording Project: Anti-Vietnam War Protests in the San Francisco Bay Area & Beyond, lib.UCBerkly.edu).

With Vietnam protests ongoing, African Americans were fighting for equality in the Civil Rights Movement. At the beginning of the decade, one of the first black women to go to a white school, Carlotta Walls, had her home bombed. In the same year Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for sitting in a whites-only restaurant (RacialInjustice.eji.org/timeline, 2014). Protests continued throughout the decade with African Americans staging sit-ins across the South as well as marching through the streets of segregated cities. Violence continued toward blacks with a bus full of protesters being attacked with baseball bats by the KKK in 1961. Many times during this decade were hoses and police dogs used to subdue protesters (RacialInjustice). It’s this kind of disorganized, disjointed and disorderly America that Herbie Hancock tried to personify in Maiden Voyage.

Hancock was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1940 and started playing piano at seven years old. Just four years after he started playing, Hancock was playing Mozart with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Dobbins, Bill. Hancock, Herbie.Oxford Music Online). After graduating college, he moved to New York to play in a quintet with Coleman Hawkins and Donald Byrd. He was immediately chosen as leader of the group, and in 1962 the first album Takin’ off came out (Dobbins). The album housed one of Hancock’s most notable tracks, “Watermelon Man.”Hancock would played for Miles Davis, Ron Carter and Tony Williams all while developing his own unique sound predicated on freedom and interaction (Dobbins).

No matter how many albums he puts out, Maiden Voyage will be considered one of, if not the, best by Hancock. While there wasn’t much critical acclaim at the time of release—the album didn’t appear on Billboards charts at all (OfficialCharts.com)—time has been kind to Hancock. In a 1995study, David McEvoy cites that Hancock is “certainly one of the most influential jazz pianists of the second half of the twentieth century,” (McEvoy, David. Aspects of Herbie Hancock’s Pre-Electric Improvisational Language and tTheir Application In Contemporary Jazz Peformance, Elder Conservatorium of Music.). Maiden Voyage has lasted the test of time and is considered one of the most influential and dynamic records of its time. A 2015 Wall Street Journal review, the album is described as a “captain’s log, detailing an odyssey into one’s self.” The review would also explain the different emotions Madien Voyage elicits.

The album is only five tracks deep, but the five tracks hold weight in the jazz community. Two of the five songs—Dolphin Dance and Eye of the Hurricane—are jazz standards (Myers, Marc. A Jazz Artist Sets Sail With a New Sound. Wall Street Journal.). This means the two songs are considered to be some of the best jazz songs of all time and are in need of preservation (Jazz Standards Overview, JazzStandars.com). So while the album is nearing 52 years old, the legacy of it is still being protected.

It’s being protected because of its way of reflecting the 1960s. An erratic time in history, Hancock encapsulates that perfectly with his measure switches, speeding up and slowing down on a dime. His music includes a sense of distress; almost like there’s a strain being put on the chords he’s playing. It’s fast-paced and sharp, like how quickly things changed from week to the next with civil rights and Vietnam. The sharpness and the piercing wail of the trumpet in “Eye of the Hurricane” captures the feelings of hostility during the decade. Even the title of the track conveys a sense of danger and turmoil during the 1960s. The way he uses elongated notes and soft drum beats can create a sense of confusion and with the constant tempo variations, that characterizes not only Hancock’s music as chaotic but the times surrounding his recordings.

The music has a sense of confusion about it with the introductory track “Maiden Voyage” telling a story of bewilderment, giving the listener no indication where the song was going. The song starts off with a sense of wonderment and optimism with building trumpet and piano sounds but eventually descends into a fitful bout of trumpet solos, breaking into the calm of the piano and drum backbeat. The trumpet takes center stage in this song, almost hogging the limelight with its jazzy sound and short notes. The song will eventually calm as it ends, only to give way to “Eye of the Hurricane,” the most chaotic song on the album.

Mentioned earlier, this song mixes in the confusion from the first track and adds in its own elements of distress and disorganization before feeding right into “Little One,” a much smoother song and serves as almost the reprieve from the musical mess in the first half of the album. This recording mixes in the bass along with a heavy does Hancock’s piano play to relax the listener to calm down before “Survival of the Fittest,” the longest song on the track and the most scattered. The trumpet used seems like there’s no direction with it and is sporadically up and down with it’s notes, jumping octaves at whim. The sound gives off this whirling feeling, almost like a battle where only one person, or race, can survive.

The final track, “Dolphin Dance,” is a serene ending to the album, using the smooth horn sounds mixed with the piano similar to “Little One.” It’s like the tranquil waters after a sailing through a rough storm, giving readers a positive end to an otherwise mostly chaotic album.

Hancock’s Maiden Voyage will stand the test of time not only for it’s experimental ways it used instruments and no lyrics to convey feeling but for how those feelings perfectly capture the mood and mentality during 1960s pandemonium.

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