Herbie Hancock: Takin’ Off

The pianist's debut album as leader, with Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon and Billy Higgins, is reissued on vinyl


Much was made in 1963 of Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder which became so popular with enthusiasts that Blue Note records were inundated with requests for more of the same. Few people appeared to notice that Herbie Hancock had been there first, almost a year earlier, with a rocking, funky blues called Watermelon Man, the opening track on this sturdy album.

Just beginning to make a name for himself as a hard-bop pianist with Donald Byrd’s quintet, Hancock chose his sidemen well for his first LP as a leader. Young Hubbard, up and coming with a big brassy sound and Dexter, currently making a big comeback in NYC were ideal for the front line. The Hancock, Warren, Higgins rhythm section had worked together on Donald Byrd’s quintet and with guitarist Grant Green and made a superb rhythm trio on this release.

It is that rocking blues, Watermelon Man, that sets up this session and the quintet keep up the standard all through the album. The opener has Hubbard blasting through the blues and Gordon following him with a funky tenor solo that keeps the momentum going. Hancock follows through with a burgeoning piano segment that puts the track to bed, urged on by the insistent commentary of Warren and Higgins.

Three Bags Full and Empty Pockets are solid hard-bop staples which the combo attack happily. The former has an Eastern flavour and Empty Pockets has some of the best Gordon on offer. The closing track on side one is Hush, from a Donald Byrd session a year earlier and not part of the original Blue Note release. It is that sterling rhythm section, here supporting Donald Byrd and baritone man Pepper Adams.

Hancock was given complete freedom to play his own originals, unusual on a debut disc at the time but he justifies Alfred Lion’s faith in him by playing some fine compositions for side 2. Driftin’ has a powerful hard-bop piano solo from Hancock and a laid-back flugelhorn contribution from Hubbard where he reduces the decibels and delivers a relaxed performance. Hubbard at this time tended to be a bit wild and over excited at times. Alone And I is a gentle, relaxed ballad beautifully played by Dexter on tenor and followed by a scintillating piano solo from the leader.

Not that well received in its day, this was a gleaming, auspicious first leader date for Hancock and after it he never looked back.

(1) Watermelon Man; Three Bags Full; Empty Pockets (2) Hush (1) The Maze; Driftin’; Alone And I (45.09)
(1) Freddie Hubbard (t, flh); Dexter Gordon (ts); Herbie Hancock (p); Butch Warren (b); Billy Higgins (d). New Jersey, 28 May 1962.
(2) Donald Byrd (t); Pepper Adams (bar); Hancock, Warren, Higgins. New Jersey, 21 September 1961.
20th Century Masterworks 350244