Herbie Hancock Empyrean Isles (1964) Blue Note


Selection: One Finger Snap (Hancock)

Selection probably the most conventional of the three unconventional tracks, eschewing the fourth, the popular foot-tapper Cantaloupe Island (a family lineage to Watermelon Man, and Blind man, Blind Man). Tony Williams sparkles while Hancock’s percussive chords and rhythmic explorations are driven with seemingly unlimited energy. Hubbard’s bright masterful cornet punctuates space that would normally be occupied by the tenor saxophone. A curtain raiser for more good things to come.


Freddie Hubbard (cornet) Herbie Hancock (piano) Ron Carter (bass) Tony Williams (drums) recorded Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, June 17, 1964

1964Hancock Chronology: Takin’ Off  (1962); My Point of View (1963); Inventions And Dimensions (1963); Empyrean Isles (1964); Maiden Voyage (1965)


AllMusic sets the tone: “Hancock pushes at the borders of hard bop, finding a brilliantly evocative balance between traditional bop, soul-injected grooves, and experimental, post-modal jazz. Hancock’s four original concepts are… designed to push the limits of the band and of hard bop.”

Great!  Our critical vocabulary now enriched with the concept of post-modal jazz. In truth, some tracks are better suited to concentrated listening behind dark glasses and, judging from some online reviews, the album has a strong following among the goatee-stroking demographic. …Yeah…

The liner notes draw attention to the unusual quartet format, a  rhythm section with cornet, which makes a virtue of the absence of a tenor and conventional melodies. Given the quartet has two “percussionists” – Anthony William’s drums and Hancock’s piano, the titles are essentially a series of rhythmic canvases which allow the soloist of the moment to go where the mood takes them, while the “rhythm section” more or less do the same. Musically it doesn’t get a lot better than this for 1964.

More than could be said of the rest of the liner notes, which are devoted to new age rambling about the mystical forces of Empyrean Isles by one Nora Kelly, an early prototype Kate Bush :

“Empyrean Isles, four glittering jewels, beyond the dreams of men…. Myth and legend clothe these Isles in mystery, for they are elusive and said to vanish at the approach of ordinary mortals….”

She continues in the same vein on Hancock’s Maiden Voyage:

“The sea yet holds her secrets, and it will be many a long year ere man plumbs her depths, ravaging her beauty, imprisoning her creatures, usurping her throne with a savage hand.”

Ummm …Great!  Post-poetry.

Vinyl: BLP 4175 mono, possibly second press indicated by the DG one side.

Vinyl purchased without cover, too good an opportunity to miss,  hence an “impostor” digital cover, courtesy of The Cover Project – handy little site for jazz downloaders who like to have an authentic-looking cover art on their itunes ipod ipad igota luvverlybunchacoconuts, whatever. I  printed it at 32cmx32cm on glossy A3+ photo paper to make up a pretend life-size vinyl cover. Looks quite convincing but  the sheer cost of the paper and ink, buying a Scorpio clone just for the sleeve begins to look a more sensible alternative.


Butchered cover, liner notes annotated by the British armed forces radio station MC.4175 LNR R

Collector’s Corner

Purchased last year from a record dealer disposing of a parcel of four Blue Notes found in some kind of army surplus inventory disposal, a more unlikely place it is hard to imagine. Some poking around on the Internet reveals the likely story behind the records.

stacks_image_489The initials AFBA on the label can be traced to the British Army Forces Broadcasting Association based in Aden, Yemen, on the southern borders of Saudi Arabia. (you even get a geography lesson on LJC, where else?)

The seaport of Aden was an outpost of the British Empire and a strategic part of the Arabian Gulf, guarding access to international trade  and oil that flowed through the Suez Canal, which connected the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. The  British Army maintained a presence in the little Protectorate of Aden up until 1967, forces radio broadcast music for the soldiers, and this record was made in 1964,  it all hangs together.

What doesn’t tie in is the choice of Blue Note records and the average British squaddie’s taste in music. Consider the American equivalent, Vietnam: gunboats on the Mecong Delta, the whiff of cannabis and napalm in the air, gunfire, fear of death, Jimmy Hendrix, Purple Haze – that’s music to fight a war to, not Hancock’s Watermelon Man: ballroom dancing into battle.

Perhaps the radio station received a parcel of records from England with a wide selection of whatever happened to be the latest records to hand. This first-hand account from an AFBA announcer (or “MC”) ten years previously:

“We worked out of a small non air-conditioned studio in RAF Khormaksar…Every week great big Discs would arrive from the UK …. We had a Hospital Favourites and a Family Favourites  programme once a week”

How terribly British, Family Favourites. These Blue Notes were probably shipped from New York to London, the on to the Gulf of Arabia, played may be a couple of times, shipped back to England and warehoused along with gas-masks and tin helmets, until finally auctioned off to a British trader, in the company of records destined for Hospital and Family favourites. I wonder which track of Empyrean Isles would feature in the Family Favourites request. And you worry, what sort of family?

14 thoughts on “Herbie Hancock Empyrean Isles (1964) Blue Note

  1. Pingback: Herbie Hancock - Empyrean Isles - RVJ [radio.video.jazz]

  2. Pingback: ‘Empyrean Isles’ – Herbie Hancock

  3. am I still preaching in the desert in favor of Free Jazz?
    it is strange that in this world of true jazz lovers no one is willing to know, and love, the last original pure jazz form. many of us have had decades for approaching Free: am I a lonely wolf?
    Hancock has never been a Free man, but he succeeded in crossing those years in a different way than Miles. maybe free-bop is correct. I have and love this record, but it’s not Free.


    • Be our conscience, Dott. Do not weaken because you are (ahem) few in number. The signpost to freedom is the right path. Some are a little further along the path than others. I just bought an (early) Archie Shepp and have enjoyed it more than I could have a few years ago. You are on the other side of the river bank calling all to cross. Me, I have my trouser cuffs rolled up, still paddling in the water’s edge. But at least my feet are wet.


      • No, dottorjazz, you’re not entirely a lone wolf. There will be some who will be horrified by what I am about to say, but I recently chucked out a number of Blue Notes (cheap represses, admittedly) because on repeated listening I found them formulaic, boring even — I knew what was coming next.

        Increasingly, I find myself listening to free and avant-garde jazz in which I can’t always find the tune, often don’t know what is going to happen next, and don’t always understand what the band are doing exactly — but…but…but…it holds my attention in a way other musics increasingly don’t. Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Marilyn Crispell, Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, David Murray…. These are some of the musicians I find myself returning to with _real_ anticipation…

        A luta continua.


        • Claps hands over ears, Can’t hear you! (Hums 32 bar AABA format, 8 bar A sections and an 8 bar bridge). Say it ain’t so, Alan! You’ve..gone…over to the free side! It’s all ways the same – the unexpected, every time. Usually when you least expect it, too.
          Be sure to return before sunrise..


          • I’ll tell you a funny but true story. Last Saturday I was playing something, er, free-ish, and there was a wonderful out-of-tempo accent on the cymbal dome, and I remember thinking how brilliant it was that these cymbal accents didn’t fall where one would expect them, were in fact aggressively out of time. I looked round. Our cat was playing with the cable on my headphones. With each pat the connector struck the loudspeaker stand, clear and bell-like….

            I have turned the little cat on to free jazz.

            You see, we’re like that: always waiting to find another cat we can turn on…


            • wellcome Alun and Alun’s cat: the wild bunch thickens: for those of you, Men of good Will, try Le matin de noire, from Impulse 94, New thing at Newport.


  4. I’m not a fan of “The Egg”, but then again, I’m not a fan of free jazz in general…is it accurate to call that track free jazz? How about free bop? I’ve heard that term before. But I love the album art and I love the quartet with cornet (see also Lee Morgan’s “Candy”). I don’t own this on vinyl but I don’t pursue it on ebay because the entire side 2 is not of interest to me. Your copy sounds decent though.


  5. Timing is everything! I just practically gave away a Perfect DMM of this Album for 5 bucks. I would have shipped it off to you. I have a Liberty and Japanese King pressing. Maybe you should start a “WANT or trade” Sections. I’m still looking for a Curtis Fuller The Opener album Cover.


  6. This is a hard to come by record, so even it hasn’t had a sleeve, it looks like a good opportunity. Maybe someday you may score a beat up record with a somewhat nice sleeve though. The record has some great Hubbard!
    And nice story.


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