Herbie Hancock: The Prisoner (1969) Liberty/Blue Note


Selection: The Prisoner


Johnny Coles (flugelhorn) Garnett Brown (trombone) Tony Studd (bass trombone) Hubert Laws (flute) Jerome Richardson (bass clarinet) Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone, alto flute) Herbie Hancock (piano, electric piano) Buster Williams (bass) Albert Heath (drums) recorded Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, April 18-23, 1969


This isn’t especially a “Hancock album” in the mould of his earlier Blue Note work – his presence is more low-key, cast in a different role: supporting the ensemble who deliver the performance. It’s like he done the Miles Davis 2nd Quintet thing, looking around for the next direction, taking on composer arranger organiser enabler big group work, trying it for size, before deciding instead to slip into a shell-suit, climb on board the fusion and funk wagon and order ever-larger pairs of glasses. The Prisoner is effectively his last jazz album, but what an album.

The title tracks and liner notes tie this work into the struggles of black America emerging from  early ’60s, an extended metaphor of The Prisoner, rising from MLK’s  “I have Dream”  to  the “Promise of the Sun“. Whereas Max Roach  employed a vocalist to speak the overtly political message, not to belittle the politics, this is a work of great musical craftsmanship. Hancock combines careful scoring and  arranging of his nonet with free-flowing soloists.

Henderson especially contributes a bravura performance, on fire, angry and rasping to theme. It’s also one for the sound engineers, apparently this session is noted for RVG’s use of reverb on Coles’ flugelhorn and Henderson’s tenor.  Can’t disassemble sound for myself, EMT plate! EMT plate! (or whatever) The sound just goes straight into the ears and the brain nods “sounds good!”

I checked Hancock’s latest musical celebrity antics – “Herbie Hancock and Snoop Dogg to feature on album” – just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, “Herbie Hancock named Professor of Poetry at Harvard University” . He’s just enjoying himself, while he can, he’s earned it, and why not. The great years are available for all time on record.  I can still enjoy myself too, with a “new” old Hancock album.

Thanks to everyone who pointed me at it.

Vinyl: BST 84279 Division of Liberty

In the past, I haven’t had a very high opinion of late-Liberty releases, the Transamerica period,  but this 1969 pressing is generally excellent, as befits a van Gelder recording and mastering and stereo RVG to boot.  It is  possibly a little soft at the top-end compared with Blue Note/ Plastylite sound, but it is difficult to know who or what  to attribute that to, and unless you habitually listen to bright early ’60 Blue Note you probably wouldn’t be aware of the comparison.



Collectors Corner

LJC-DunceLJC confesses: What a dunce. I didn’t know. I thought “The Prisoner” was a movie soundtrack. And hot on the heels of his soundtrack to the film  “Blow Up”. It sure looks like a movie soundtrack judged by the cover.   Herbie is not playing, he’s “posing” like a movie character.

It’s a nonet . That’s only a couple of players short of a Big Band, which (aside from Francy Boland) I am generally not keen on. I never looked at the line-up in detail. Joe Henderson! Recorded by RVG! These signals were overlooked.

Hancock is credited with “electric piano” as well as acoustic. I dislike electric piano and  electric bass – give me acoustic every time.  It’s got Laws on  flute – I dislike “flute”, for the most part (Herbie Mann!).

It’s a very late Liberty, 1969, a time when many thing were just making a “turn for the worse”…on the cusp of Mwandishi. Just so many signals saying “avoid!”.

I don’t mind admitting, I was completely and totally wrong. There I’ve said it. You can all feel a little smug. It’s great. It’s not been off the turntable for the last few days. Brilliant album, a worthy companion to Hancock’s Blue Notes indeed.

And not at all expensive as a largely “overlooked” Hancock compared with his mid-’60s Blue Note works.  I had to resort to Discogs sellers, which was actually not an unpleasant experience either, sidestepping the nail-biting auction process.

A lot of lessons learned, but I still think I’ll draw a line under Herbie at 1969. The afro wig and platforms will have to stay under the bed for now, but who knows what you might like tomorrow?

17 thoughts on “Herbie Hancock: The Prisoner (1969) Liberty/Blue Note

  1. Only three stars at Allmusic, and today a TonePoet re-release. Bought it anyway because I think everything from HH has its relevance (yes also that disco episode). Stand flabbergasted whilst playing. That reverb ! The Nonet ! And then LJC turned out to have written about it already in 2014. Did I overlook your review ?

  2. Phew… That’s what happens when you’re off the radar for a few weeks: you miss out! So much to sift through, LCJ, and as a magnificent bonus you review Hancock’s The Prisoner! Glad to read that you like as much as some of us do 😀

    I’ll compare the run out etchings of your copy with mine; suppose we find differences. Anyway, what is it about this album that I like so much? I can only say that the entire album, to me, has a mesmerizing “seventies” sound that I just can’t get enough of – nevermind the album was released in 1969.

    I grew up in the seventies and there were plenty of American TV-series shown on Dutch TV when I was a child that in a lot of cases featured background music that always stuck with me because of the sound. Just like the music on The Prisoner.

  3. There are so many Liberty era releases that are highly underrated: Lonnie Smith ‘Think’, Stanley Turrentine ‘The Spoiler’, Duke Pearson ‘The Right Touch’, Grant Green ‘Alive’………and so much more. RVG sound, Killer Music – what more could you ask for?

  4. There you go. Sometimes (and I hereby promise never to say this again — not to you and certainly not to myself), you just have to look beyond your prejudices for a little while…

  5. you’re not a dunce, LJC. you do what we all do.

    I go to the record store and find several things i want. recently, several interesting things caught my eye, but originals of “pre-bird” and “out of the afternoon” were the big winners that i took home. in any case, you can’t buy EVERYTHING, so you try to sort by what you know you like. i turned down an intriguing bossa nova herbie mann album as well as an oliver nelson prestige. so there’s no harm in that, and i’d bet you find that more often than not, it is a system that works well.

    recent blind buys that were great: art blakey’s “3 blind mice”, count basie’s “afrique”, barney kessel “volume 3”, etc.

    blind buys that weren’t so great: eddie davis “jaws”, kenny burrell’s “handcrafted”, the college concert of pee wee russell and henry red allen, bud shank and bob brookmeyer on pacific jazz, etc.

    sometimes it works, and sometimes not. here, it worked. and good for you.

    • Re: ” It’s like he done the Miles Davis 2nd Quintet thing…” – doesn’t Al Heath even sound like Tony Williams here at times? Amazing…

  6. I premise I’m not a good Henderson connoisseur but his solo here reminds me of Trane heavily.
    not the last Trane, but the one around 1963, less ideas, less development but very similar phrasing.

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