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Listen: five classic albums by jazz great Herbie Hancock, who turns 80 today

The US pianist built an indomitable career out of his quest to change and innovate

US jazz great Herbie Hancock turns 80 on April 12, 2020. 
US jazz great Herbie Hancock turns 80 on April 12, 2020. 

The jazz world pays tribute to a true legend today (April 12). US pianist and composer Herbie Hancock has turned 80, so how better to celebrate than to delve into some of the key albums from his multifaceted career that spans six decades.

From the funk odyssey of Head Hunters to the intimacy of Gershwin’s World, Hancock’s style has taken him far and wide.

Speaking to The National in 2014, he reflected on his career, saying his embrace of the unknown has been responsible for his success.

"I believe that change is a very important colour for life,” he said. “It allows for continual evolution, continual development, continual surprises and growth. I welcome change. I love change. It is one of my most important inspirations."

Here are five classic albums showcasing the various changes of Hancock’s storied career.

'Maiden Voyage' (1956)

This is the album on which Hancock comes into his own as both composer and band leader. After being under the tutelage of Miles Davis for two years, Hancock took on some of the master's penchant for understated yet quietly challenging pieces that expanded the outer reaches of jazz. The arrangements here are adventurous without sacrificing any of the inherent melody central to his work. This is best exemplified in the yearning title song, which has become a jazz standard, as well the shimmering Dolphin Dance.

'Crossings' (1972)

One of the most "out there" albums recorded by Hancock with his experimental group Mwandishi. That said, despite its spaced-out Moog synthesisers, African percussion and off-kilter saxophones, the album remains a remarkably cogent piece of work. This is primarily because of Hancock's strident playing on the Fender Rhodes electric piano – some of his groovy riffs hint at the funk-centric approach of his future works.

'Head Hunters' (1973)

After having his head in the clouds on a string of esoteric albums with previous band Mwandishi, Hancock returns to earth with this stone-cold funk classic. Gone is the avant-garde approach of Mwandishi as Hancock embraces groove. The album is taut, gritty and chock-full of chunky bass or keyboard riffs; it remains a goldmine for hip-hop producers to sample.

'Future Shock' (1983)

Another example of Hancock's restless muse. After becoming a pop star courtesy of his big-selling Head Hunters, Hancock ditched the funk stylings to embrace technology in this forward-thinking release. Future Shock remains influential in both the jazz and hip-hop worlds, as it melds funk with drum machines, sequences and DJ scratching. It also spawned the hit Rock It.

'Gershwin’s World' (1998)

One of the most underrated works in Hancock's oeuvre. This is a loving tribute to composer George Gershwin and shows a deeper and soulful side of Hancock’s playing. With a star-studded guest line-up that includes folk hero Joni Mitchell and legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter, this is a wonderful journey into the work of one of the 20th century's greatest composers.

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Read more:

Herbie Hancock on life, Jazz and technology

'Birth of the Cool': 9 ways Miles Davis changed the music scene forever

Remembering Manu Dibango: what I learned from watching the African jazz legend soundcheck

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Updated: April 12, 2020 04:43 PM

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