The short, non-hyperbolic version of the review: four great songs comprising one great album that’s one of the greatest albums of the 60s and the undoubtedly the greatest album in this great man’s discography. The longer version of the review is as follows:
“Cantaloupe Island” is the one whose reputation precedes the album, included in every compilation of Herbie Hancock under Blue Note that it’s practically his pre-Head Hunters calling card. Admittedly it’s the first one I listened to when I first heard Emprean Isles, but that was all to do with it being a fair head shorter than the other three songs and its wonderful title. Like everyone else, I fell in love with it instantly but additional plays reveals that though it’s the album’s most immediate song, it’s also the least interesting. Neither Ron Carter (bass) or Tony Williams (drums) are given much to do here, with the former practically invisible and the latter mostly providing cymbal splashes for the intertwining melodies of Herbie Hancock (piano) and Freddie Hubbard (cornet) to ride the waves of. But the melodies are good, and the song is the natural culmination of what Herbie Hancock had been doing up until this point – more melodic and tighter thanTakin’ Off‘s “Watermelon Man” or My Point of View‘s “Blind Man, Blind Man.”
So yeah, great song, but still, the least interesting song here, and if you were only privy to that one song and his more commercially successful stuff a la “Chameleon” and “Rockit,” you could make the dangerous assumption that Herbie Hancock was a man with very little ambition and composition and improvisatory skill beyond making head-boppers. The other three songs more than dispel that. In fact, the rest of Empyrean Isles is a dangerous game; with Ron Carter mostly providing the pavement for the other players to leap off of (excepting a few solos; more on that later), there’s only three players here. But it speaks volumes to the integrity of Herbie Hancock’s composition skills – better than they’ve ever been before – that the music feels spacious instead of, well, naked. Moreover, whereas Takin’ Off and My Point of View had other musicians providing color,Empyrean Isles only has one Freddie Hubbard, but it speaks volumes to the integrity of each member’s improvisatory skills that the listener never longs for anyone else.
Let’s get a little more specific. “One Finger Snap” starts the album off with almost three non-stop minutes of different cornet melodies, each of them blazing in over Ron Carter’s nimbleness (key moment: the 1:08 mark onwards, where Hubbard spurts out the same string over and over again like a goddamn machine gun before Hancock enters the fray and plays a staccato motif linking Hubbard to the next bit), and by the end of it, you wonder how Herbie Hancock is going to stack up when he steps up to the plate. But he does, and the weirdest thing is, as far as I can tell, he goes at it almost completely one-handed. The key moment here is from the 4:07 mark to 4:17, where there’s a beautiful dialogue between Hancock and Tony Williams. After a few minutes, Hubbard returns with the original theme before Tony Williams rounds out the song with a solo that’s simultaneous thunder and falling rain.
“Oliloqui Valley” is a different beast entirely; if “One Finger Snap” was the turbulent voyage to find Empyrean, then the laid-back “Oliloqui Valley” (and the funky “Cantaloupe Island”) is finally getting there and enjoying the scenery. It’s good, but if I were forced to pick a least favorite on the album, I’d name “Oliloqui Valley” before you had me at gunpoint. That being said, there’s one really wonderful section that everyone already knows about – Ron Carter’s solo from 5:37 to 6:51,” where he’s practically flaying some of the strings to make them (emotionally) more resonant. Unfortunately, that full minute and a half aside, every member takes it comparatively easy on this one than “One Finger Snap.”
That’s alright though, because “The Egg” is the longest song here and more than makes up for it, and if “Oliloqui Valley” and “Cantaloupe Island” were settling down on Empyrean, than “The Egg” is the realization that the highest heaven is neither high nor heavenly enough; Herbie Hancock’s most experimentally successful track, and I say this while including his jazz fusion period in the early 70s and genre/bandwagon-hoping period afterwards. Out of all the introducing passages on the album, each one different than the last and each one memorable, the one on “The Egg” is my favorite – a call and response from Herbie Hancock joined in by military rolls from Tony Williams. Things get downright crazy around the 5-minute mark. Hubbard plays a few notes on something that doesn’t even sound like a cornet (it genuinely sounds like a wind instrument), Herbie Hancock plays the beginning of a melody that disintegrates completely, Tony Williams taps out a few beats on what could easily be his coffee mug. Ron Carter grabs a bow and applies it to his bass while Williams scratches at something and Hancock adds a mischievous line – they’ve overshot heaven and reached hell.
A few seconds of complete silence.
Hubbard plays a few notes, really quietly and really somberly – the sort that they’d probably play at funerals though I’m not too sure because I’ve never been to a funeral where horns are involved, and if these notes are for a funeral, they’re for the band’s funeral. Hancock does the same before deciding “fuck that”; his piano playing becoming brighter and brighter and more and more full-bodied, fighting off the ominous bows from Ron Carter. Carter gets the idea, putting down his bow and joins in with Hancock, eventually leading to Hancock rolling arpeggios higher and higher until Tony Williams comes in and pushes him until said arpeggios become more and more frantic. As if the song wasn’t out there enough, Hancock adds a healthy amount of dissonance in the song’s final quarter, finally dissipating when the band return to the original theme, emerging triumphant from the depths of hell and landing back to Earth.