Tuesday, March 2, 2010

March 2: Herbie Hancock, "Watermelon Man"

Artist: Herbie Hancock
Song: "Watermelon Man"
Album: Takin' Off
Year: 1962

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Original Recording) (will open in new tab)

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Santamaria Recording) (will open in new tab)

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Head Hunters Recording) (will open in new tab)

Without question, one of the most difficult obstacles in music is being an honest critic of ones own music. In an overwhelming majority of cases, once a song is a "hit," an artist makes no changes to its form, and the song remains exactly the same as the decades progress. However, there are a handful of artists who continually look for ways to make their compositions better, and it is in these songs that one often finds the most talented musicians in history. While one can find examples of this "maturity" of songs all across the musical spectrum, it is understandably most prominent within jazz, where the nature of improvisational music almost forces songs to continually change. Having had a longer tenure in the genre than nearly any other artist, there are few jazz musicians who have been present for so many of the most significant changes in jazz, and more to the point, responsible for these changes as piano genius, Herbie Hancock. From his early years as part of Miles Davis' famed groupings, to his amazingly innovative work as a band leader, Herbie Hancock's compositions and recordings remain some of the most influential work in the history of the genre. Among a massive catalog of phenomenal recordings, there is one song that has become a true standard of jazz music, and though it has been covered countless times, there is nothing that can compare to Hancock's own versions of the iconic song, "Watermelon Man."

While "Watermelon Man" is easily one of Hancock's most famous compositions, the truth of the matter is, there are a large number of covers of the song, including one that became a top ten hit a year after the original was released. Taking the core of the song and giving it a Latin feel, Mongo Santamaria shortened the composition by nearly two-thirds, and his version (linked above) went all the way to the tenth spot on the charts, and would later be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Even with this undeniable commercial success, and having been covered by everyone from The J.B.'s to Bill Haley, there is simply nothing that can compare to the original...except perhaps the remake from Hancock himself eleven years after the original was released. The original recording, form Hancock's brilliant 1962 record, Takin' Off (linked above) is nothing short of the classic Blue Note hard-bop sound, as the solo improvisations are extremely tight and the overall sound is that perfect balance between wonderfully exploratory free-form and strict structure. Hancock's supporting cast on this version is truly an all-star lineup, and the trumpet solo form Freddie Hubbard, along with the sax solos from Dexter Gordon make this version and instant jazz classic. Similarly, Hancock's playing on this recording perfectly capture his style at the time, as he seamlessly moves through and around the rest of his band. The smooth, complex nature of the original recording make it easily understandable why the song has become so iconic, as it has an irresistible groove, and some of the most extraordinary improvisations in jazz history.

However, as great as the original is, nothing could have prepared listeners for the stunning reworking which Hancock gave the song for his landmark 1973 recording, Head Hunters. Remaining today as perhaps the greatest acid-jazz or jazz-fusion album ever recorded, Head Hunters presents jazz in a grittier, and funkier manner than had ever been heard previously. The Head Hunters version of "Watermelon Man" almost completely replaces the hard-bop feel with a style that is far more rooted in soul and R&B, and yet the talent of the musicians, as well as the brilliant core of the arrangement still shines through, making this equally as classic as the original. This version of "Watermelon Man" is almost unrecognizable compared to the original at first, as it centers around a far more primitive and funk-based sound. This time around, Hancock's fantastic piano progression is taken to the guitar, and combining this with the deep groove of Paul Jackson's bass, the remake manages to create a sound and hook that are just as irresistible as the original. This later version also finds Hancock on electric keyboards and organs, and this gives the song a far more full and sonically rich feel, yet simultaneously moves it further away from the original. While there are many covers of "Watermelon Man," none have the same feel as the original, and there are similarly none that so perfectly capture the soul of the song, whilst remaining completely unique as Hancock's own reworking for 1973's Head Hunters.

While there is certainly something to be said for leaving an amazing work of art untouched, one can also make the case that a song must progress over time, as the composer should inspect it with a critical eye. Finding new ways to improve the expression found within the music, it is often amazing to hear a song change over time, and there are few songs that so brilliantly show this change as one will find in Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man." Rooted in the original, hard-bop version form 1962, the song almost instantly became a "jazz standard," and it remains one of the most revered compositions in music history. Having been covered across the musical spectrum, the true genius of the composition stands in the fact that, regardless of the stylistic approach, the core progression remains almost hypnotic. Truth be told, the most impressive cover of "Watermelon Man" is likely Hancock's own remake, and the deep, funky, almost psychedelic groove that he creates in the 1973 version stands as one of the finest moments in jazz history. Proving that one can find just as much musical brilliance in a highly structured, "formal" jazz sound as easily as within a far more primitive, experimental sound, Herbie Hancock cemented his name as one f the most important figures in jazz history on both occassions when he gave the world the iconic song, "Watermelon Man."

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