Listening Back – Herbie Hancock’s “Sextant” (1973)

Since becoming the pianist for Miles Davis’ Second Quintet in the early 60s, Herbie Hancock spent much of the decade mastering a mixture of modal and freeform jazz, until Davis split the group up in search of new sounds and genres. Hancock, too, had already been branching in his own direction, becoming a bandleader on albums like “Maiden Voyage” (1965) and “Speak Like a Child” (1968)… but then Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” (1970) dropped, and jazz was slammed right in the center, fracturing off into all kinds of musical directions. Hancock himself became interested in electronic music, leading him to form his band Mwandishi. They would release three albums together: a self-titled fusion jazz LP (1971), the more electronic / avant-garde “Crossings” (1972), and perhaps the most striking album of Hancock’s career, “Sextant” (1973).

On the album we have Herbie Hancock on piano and several synthesizers, Billy Hart on drums, Buster Williams on bass, Scatalie Cassidy on trumpet and horn, Julian Priester on trombone, Bennie Maupin on several different reeds, and Patrick Gleeson on additional synths. The album hits 39 minutes in just three tracks, so without further ado:

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Opening the record with “Rain Dance” (9m16s) was a pretty bold move, as it’s by far the most experimental and spaced out of the three. The first couple minutes are only rhythmically held together by a synth loop that gives the impression of raindrops. There’re strange ‘data-stream’ sounds looped under much of the track as well, interrupted by bursts of energy from the drums and horns. It’s like a very loose, dancey amalgamation of man and machine, a spinning collision by the past and future. It’s by far the most inaccessible track here, but even then the challenge presented to the listener is balanced out by the fact that it manages to keep itself tied down before it gets too spacey. It’s as if it were a warm up for the more cohesive sound the rest of the album brings—and yet it still feels like the future of music that only Hancock can hear.

“Hidden Shadows” (10m11s) could easily fit into Hancock’s next album, the funk-drive “Head Hunters” (1973). The track revolves around a heavy-groove held powerfully down by synth, bass and drums, while the horns and additional synths solo over it. The odd time signature of the groove (19/8 ?!) keeps the song rolling along with varied momentum, yet it’s always moving nonetheless. You can hear the intensity periodically swell, just waiting to burst, until finally in the last few minutes things explode / fall apart for just a moment before it falls back into a suddenly mellow take on the groove, before fading away. It’s a very fun track that shows real chemistry between the band—easily the best track to just jump into.

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The final track, “Hornets” (19m35s) falls somewhere between the last two tracks in terms of genre and style. There’re strange kazoo/mellotron instrumentals here that give the image of buzzing hornets (hence the name), the bass and drums lay down a fast but simple groove while the horn section sounds as if they’re taking swats at the hornets to drive them away. It’s not powerful in the way “Hidden Shadows” has the band punching together, but it’s the most high-energy song on the record, though everyone seems to be running in their own direction, rubber-banding back to the rhythm section eventually. There are many strong sections of “Hornets” but they don’t really justify how long the jam stretches on for—it’s a fine song but not as strong as it’s predecessors.

Herbie Hancock’s “Sextant” sees the composer treading where few men have gone before, leading to some of the most challenging yet rewarding sounds to come out of (let’s say) the autumnal years of jazz. It caught Hancock right before he opted for a more commercially viable funk-fusion sound, and serves as a showcase for his creativity with his newly found love for electronic music. It might not be the most consistently-great album in his library, but it leaves perhaps the deepest impression.

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