Between the “sophomore slump” (which I hasten to modify with quotation marks because his debut wasn’t exactly that much better as people would have you believe) of My Point of View and Empyrean Isles (his best album), Herbie Hancock released one Inventions & Dimensions, a complete oddity in his early discography that’s been overshadowed and kind of forgotten about. To wit: both The New Rolling Stone Album Guide and Wilson & Alroy’s Record Reviews places this as his lowest rated album until 1974’s Thrust and 1972’s Crossings respectively, (a laughable assessment, by the way). Elsewhere, Blue Note’s Herbie Hancock compilation, Cantaloupe Island, seems to have forgotten about this album’s existence (a laughable compilation, by the way).
But again, a complete oddity. For one thing, Hancock does away with the excess players of My Point of View, assembling a quartet of himself, Paul Chambers (bass), Willie Bobo (drums) and Osvaldo “Chihuahua” Martinez (percussion); in other words, this is just him and a rhythm section, no horns, no saxophones. Moreover, all but one of these songs are completely improvised on the spot (Herbie had written the chords of “Mimosa” and c’est tout).
Some fairly obvious problems. The album can be criticized for a lack of variety, especially with regards to the first three songs; “Mimosa” has a deeper drum sound and “Jack Rabbit” is the most spirited song of the bunch. Meanwhile, Hancock will have access to better rhythm players as his career heads in that direction: the three of them are mostly providing pavement or making momentum; Paul Chambers is especially guilty of this on “Triangle” as compared to his popping contribution on “Succotash” or his nimbleness on “Jack Rabbit.” Moreover, since it’s mostly improvised, the album sometimes demonstrates Herbie Hancock’s go(o)d(li)ness behind the piano but, at other times, demonstrates his tendency to wander without direction. It’s all too easy to imagine how much better the album would have been with a little more preplanning: there’s a full minute on “Triangle” from about 4:20 to 5:20 where Herbie Hancock settles on various fragments of a melody while he figures out where to go next; thank God for Martinez for joining in to push things along.
That being said, there are some very noteworthy solos to be found that are, at once, imaginative and economical. Take, for instance, the one from around 7:20 to 8:20 on “Triangle,” where Herbie Hancock trills between two notes with one hand for the entire duration and goes to town with the other, moving along the full length of the piano and playing around with time by slowing down before ultimately going at full speed. Elsewhere, “Jack Rabbit” has a lovely section from 1:45 to about 2:13 which begins with lovely left-to-right rolls before trilling his way down the piano and arpeggiating back up. But the best cut is opener “Succotash,” where everyone comes together for the entire track and where Herbie Hancock demonstrates the most melodic improvisations on the album, and is it just me, or does the solo at the 1:39 mark look ahead to the solo in Sextant’s “Hidden Shadows?”
The last thing I want to say: Herbie Hancock released two of his best albums, Empyrean Isles and Head Hunters in 1964 and 1973, respectively. During those same years, he managed to release a second album with an entirely different aesthetic – Inventions & Dimensions in 1964 and Sextant in 1973 – because the man was, as they say, on fire. Also, all of them comes complete with great covers, though the lack of shadow on this Nolan-esque one irks me.