Look, no one loves the Herb (the man) more than I do, but let’s face facts: outside of 5-10 albums, his discography ranges from pure shlock (most anything post-1974, if what I’ve heard – and I’ve heard a lot – is indicative) to overrated (ie. including some of the beloved “jazz fusion” trilogy). This one’s in the latter bucket.
The main attraction here is “Watermelon Man,” which became one of Herbie Hancock’s most well-known songs, even as he went on to do cross-over projects from Head Hunters (where he re-made it in an infinitely more tantalizing version) to Future Shock (where he’s the first person to put DJ scratching to record): I’m pretty sure this version is included in every single music compilation and piano sheet collection with his name attached. But the reason why this version of “Watermelon Man” (and with it, the rest of this record) became ‘canonized’ has more to do with the fact that Mongo Santamaria would release a popular cover afterwards (ie. that it became a standard) than the song itself, which is almost mind-numbingly simple for 7 fucking minutes. If you enjoy this sort of gospel- and blues-inspired jazz, may I direct you to the underrated My Point of View’s “Blind Man, Blind Man” released one year later? And if that doesn’t suffice, may I direct you to the more concise and catchier culmination that is Empyrean Isles’ “Cantaloupe Island (also with Freddie Hubbard)?” And if that doesn’t suffice, may I direct you to Freddie Hubbard’s Backlash’s title track? Sure, both Hubbard (trumpet) and Dexter Gordon (saxophone) do well on “Watermelon Man”, but Herbie Hancock gives himself next to nothing to do beyond the vamp, and swing-indebted drummer Billy Higgins doesn’t come up with anything interesting to move the song along (compare to “The Maze”, where he at least tries to prod around). Sincerely could do without ever hearing this song again.
(Side note: Quincy Jones also released a cover of “Watermelon Man” one year later on Quincy Jones Plays Hip Hits, pop-ifying it by reducing the run-time to 3 minutes and adding vocals…it sucks even more.)
The rest of the album follows suit on these light grooves with the only exception of closing track “You And I” where both Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock are able to wax poetic over the minimal rhythm; Dexter Gordon’s closing solo’s a bit too jumpy at the start, though he settles into the sound afterwards. On the other four tracks, it’s a losing battle to convince anyone that they’re all on par with “Watermelon Man” because they didn’t have ear-worming grooves, but I truthfully get a lot more out of the stop-start of “Empty Pockets” (check out Dexter Gordon’s solo, especially around the 3:30 mark) … And there’s a moment I really like on “Driftin’” when Herbie Hancock trills for a quarter-second because of what Butch Warren does right afterwards (around the 4:30 mark).
With Ornette Coleman’s Something Else!, one of the most overrated debut albums in jazz history. Both are okay, and both respective artists went on to do much greater things – and soon too! And in Herb’s case, with Tony Williams on drums!