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Herbie Hancock — Sextant
(Columbia CK 64983, 1973/1998, CD)

by Mike McLatchey, Published 2016-05-05

Sextant Cover art

McLatchey's Second Tier

You can easily see each era of pianist Herbie Hancock's discography flow in colors. While he started in the Miles Davis Quintet, he was both leader and contributor to a whole host of Blue Note albums in the late 60s before the decade turned and the electricity started to set in. Then the Mwandishi band was formed and Hancock began to create a major electric legacy of his own after leaving his mentor. The transition from Mwandishi to Sextant showed Herbie moving to his most farthest out album, mixing various strains of experimental and free jazz with the rock and funk of the era and a great deal of electronics as well. At the time this album was created, Herbie's band was stretching out in massive chunks of music, often vamping for as long as 20 to 30 minutes at a time, so it's no surprise that when Sextant showed up it was three long pieces. This is a classic of the jazz rock era, a style that in this guise is something completely separate from fusion. But unfortunately it would be on his bandmates' albums, particularly Eddie Henderson and Julian Priester, that we'd see the evolution of this style because apparently Columbia had different ideas for the direction Herbie would take and the jump from Sextant to Head Hunters was almost bewildering on the face of it. I love that stuff too but this was the apex of Hancock's game.

Sextant was practically avant garde music, an approach to jazz that distilled a number of streams coming out of the 60s. It largely came from his live work at the time, which included vast improvisational spaces. I have a show from this period that was about three discs and included almost 30 minute chunks of long jamming stretches that worked with many of the themes that showed up on Sextant. In comparison to the live music, Sextant seems incredibly focused, but then, of course, if you flip forward to Head Hunters you'll see another considerable narrowing of the field. Having Dr. Patrick Gleason involved on the synthesizers had a big impact on the spatial quality of Herbie's work — Sextant wasn't nearly as much about jazz riffing as it was about creating huge atmospheres with a large group. If you think of Miles' Bitches Brew as being the birthplace of a number of careers you'd have to consider this band another birthplace as well, one that launched the careers of Bennie Maupin, Julian Priester, Buster Williams, and Eddie Henderson, the latter of whom fortunately continued the Sextant tangent with his own career when Hancock launched the Head Hunters band. Here you have three pieces of music that are almost like paintings with grooves that were so sparse they largely underlined the huge head spaces this group created. Like with Crossings it makes these albums almost infinitely listenable because there's just so much to follow. And maybe as time goes on we'll get to a year when this will actually seem contemporary as even to this date it's just completely ahead of its era.

Filed under: Reissues, 1998 releases, 1973 recordings

Related artist(s): Bennie Maupin, Herbie Hancock, Dr. Patrick Gleeson, Eddie Henderson, Julian Priester

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