Complex Beauty: Herbie Hancock - "Speak Like A Child"

Herbie Hancock • Speak Like A Child • 1968 • Blue Note Records
Recorded March 6th & 9th, 1968 at Van Gelder Studios

The Tracks:

A1. Riot
A2. Speak Like A Child
A3. First Trip
B1. Toys
B2. Goodbye To Childhood
B3. The Sorcerer

The Players:

Herbie Hancock - Piano
Thad Jones - Flugelhorn
Peter Philips - Bass Trombone
Jerry Dodgion - Alto Flute
Ron Carter - Bass
Mickey Roker - Drums

The Vinyl:

This is the final version of the classic blue-and-white label during it's original incarnation before Liberty Records (and thus Blue Note) became part of United Artists in 1969 (although UA would briefly bring it back a few years later). We've got a first pressing here, with the "A DIVISION OF LIBERTY RECORDS, INC." along the top of the label. The album must have been a big seller, as the album was re-issued again three more times between 1970 and 1973. 

In a rare move, I purchased this copy as a replacement for an original already in my collection. When I came across it at a local shop, it was in such amazing shape that for the $20 asking price I knew I needed it to replace the one I picked up years ago (which overall isn't terrible, but the vinyl is noisy with quite a bit of groove wear). The cover and vinyl can easily be rated just below Near Mint, the vinyl looks like it has barely been played since it was bought nearly fifty years ago. The price I paid was right in line with what copies are going for online, although with the condition of this one, I could easily see it going for a bit more.

The cover is of the Unipak variety, which Blue Note used for a few releases from this period, and while it's nice asthetically and may have seemed like a good idea at the time, it sure is a pain in the ass when it comes to taking out the record each time you'd like to play it. Not a huge deal though, and certainly not enough to detract from enjoying an excellent recording from a jazz master. 

The Record:

When Herbie Hancock hit the studio in 1968 to record Speak Like A Child, it had been nearly three years since he recorded an album under his own name. That record, Maiden Voyage, is rightly considered by many to be the masterwork from the first part of his career, the record where his creative and compositional skills were at their peak. Speak Like A Child may not quite reach the heights of Maiden Voyage, but it is not far behind, and it stands as Hancock's last major artistic statement with Blue Note before he left the label and embarked on the second stage of his long and illustrious career.

Herbie Hancock In 1968 (Photo by Jack Robinson)

In the years between recording as a leader, Hancock was plenty busy playing with Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams as part of Miles' Second Great Quintet (in fact Speak Like A Child has two Hancock tunes, "Riot" and "The Scorcerer" that were originally recorded by the quintet). Conventional wisdom holds that the sound, texture and arrangement of Speak Like A Child was guided by the new directions in jazz music that the quintet was pioneering during this time, which is undoubtedly true, but he was also heavily influenced by the work of Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson and Thad Jones, three dudes who knew how to arrange and compose for a larger group of musicians. As Hancock says in the liner notes,

"All the sounds in these pieces are a product of everything I've learned, particularly in recent work with Gil Evans, and, of course, in the five years I've been with Miles and the other men in the band. I feel I have to go on more and write for horns, explore more possibilities of textures. There are things I hear in my head that I don't often hear in other people's music, and I want to get more of those down. And I keep hearing new things and I have to find out what value they have, how they work out."

While Hancock chose an unusual frontline of horns for the album (flugelhorn, bass trombone, alto flute), all the actual solo time is reserved strictly for him. Nothing wrong with that, of course, by this point he was a master of improvising on the hard bop and post bop styles he once helped to popularize. The standout track is definitely the title track, it has to be one of the most beautiful compositions that Hancock ever wrote, but for my money the two trio tracks (with Hancock, Carter and Roker) are every bit as enjoyable as anything on the record. Despite his deep discography, we don't have many opportunities to hear Hancock strictly in a trio setting and he really shines. The first trio track, "First Trip," is a lesson in upbeat hard bop, with Carter's bass pushed to the front, while "The Sorcerer" is an amazing post-bop trio excursion that manages to sustain the vitality and inventiveness of the original.

As with much of his best work, Speak Like A Child, is a deceptively complex recording. Even the most novice of jazz listeners can throw this LP on and enjoy it's many charms without ever digging beneath the surface to the intricacies involved in the writing and arranging involved. It was a hallmark of Hancock's career, and the reason he has had such a long and successful one, that his music can be enjoyed on so many different levels by so many different people.

The Selections:

The Videos:

Here is an excellent trio recording of "Speak Like A Child" with Ron Carter (b) and Billy Cobham (d) from Lugano, Switzerland in 1983. Pure magic, and another reminder at how good Hancock was in this setting.

No post about Herbie in the late sixties would be complete without a look at his time with Miles Davis. Here the quintet (Miles, Herbie, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter & Tony Williams) run through a thrilling take of Jimmy Heath's "Gingerbread Boy" live in Germany in 1967.