Herbie Hancock was right at the beginning of his career as a sideman when he made his debut recording as a leader. Takin’ Off is quite a debut. Blue Note Records obviously thought Hancock had something, because aside from allowing him to retain the publishing rights to his tunes they gave him a stellar line-up to record with. Other than Dexter Gordon, who was one of the founders of be-bop and well known as one of the leading voices in jazz, Hancock’s band were young men like himself who had come of age within the hard-bop idiom, but all were already established as leading sidemen, and Freddie Hubbard was a bandleader in his own right. I guess his playing and writing spoke for itself, however, and there is no intimation in the playing here that his stellar accompanists are carrying a junior associate.
Later in his career Hancock flirted with the avant-garde, and famously made successful forays into pop styles, but this is a record that fits comfortably within an established acoustic jazz idiom. It swings hard and deep, and it is shot through with soul and gospel. Its disciplined rhythm section sets a high-contrast, clearly lit scene for a series of focussed and coherent solos. There are hints of the harmonic innovations that Hancock would develop in the coming years, some smart quartal voicings, but no extraordinary demands were made of the typical jazz listener in 1962. It’s hard-bop, done right—rather more ethereal and cerebral than the idiom’s leading pianist Horace Silver, but still far more earthy and accessible than many of the records that were coming out at the time.
Butch Warren’s bass playing is typically warm and solid here, and there are some delightful moments of upper-register lyricism in the set’s sole ballad, ‘Alone and I’. Warren had a very few years at the top of the industry, culminating in a year with Thelonious Monk, before drug addiction and mental illness ended his career, and I treasure every side he cut, especially when they’re as good as this. Everyone plays up a storm, in fact, and the album is a fitting preface to one of the most remarkable careers in jazz.
Miles Davis hired Hancock on the strength of Takin’ Off, and his subsequent 1960s recordings can be heard as a dialogue with the work he did for Davis, who along with John Coltrane was largely responsible for sustaining tonal jazz as a creatively relevant form in the face of the 1960s’ burgeoning free improvisation movement. Right here at his ground zero he’s keeping it real, but you can hear the facility that would enable Hancock to span the whole breadth of jazz, from the free to the commercial. The album produced a hit single, ‘Watermelon Man, a bluesy straight-eights groove, which became a bigger hit for Mongo Santamaria, and which has remained a standard for the subsequent sixty-years (give or take). None of the other tunes here sound like pop hits, but they are all decidedly accessible, and that’s really been a touchstone for Hancock’s entire recorded output. Even his avant-garde Mwandishi recordings are a lot easier to listen to than Ornette Coleman! For me it’s a generosity of creative spirit that makes this possible: Hancock is off on his journey, deep in the labyrinth of invention and creativity that is a jazz composer’s working environment, but he always wants us to come with him.
I’ve spent several months revisiting this album, the CD version from Rudy Van Gelder’s Blue Note reissue series, which is capped off with three alternate takes (which for me are quite as good as the versions that were released). The crystalline clarity and depth of this remaster serves the hard-bop sound well, and I can think of few more enjoyable or engaging jazz recordings, although there are certainly many more exciting and challenging ones. Herbie Hancock has had a career characterised by creative and commercial success, and is clearly a musician and composer of great diligence and seriousness, but he is also consistently playful and humorous. On his debut recording more than any other it’s clear how keen he is to share the fun.