The second stop in Derek Walmsley's journey through the jazz that imagined liberation through distant places and spaces, from Africa and the Far East to the cosmos. (Read the first instalment here)
There is nowhere on the map called Oliloqui Valley, but Herbie Hancock has left enough clues for you to find it. The title is one of many cryptic handles Hancock has used in his career, including the alternative names he gave to his 1970s Mwandishi group (and that ensemble's own alter ego, Quasar 4 Aries 29), the significance of which sometimes becomes apparent only in retrospect. “Oliloqui Valley” is not about geographic location but rather internal voyage, and these themes of journeying and subjective revelation are echoed in the title of a later Hancock track, “You'll Know When You Get There”.
“Oliloqui Valley” is from his fourth album Empyrean Isles, released in 1964. Two of its tracks, “Oliloqui Valley” and “Cantaloupe Island”, are themed around imaginary places, and the album's sleevenotes by Nora Kelly tell an impressionistic tale of exotic islands, untouched by humanity and unchanged since the dawn of time.
Hancock was only 24 when this album was made. In his previous Blue Note albums as leader he had shown a chameleonic, ruthless ability to adopt and adapt radically different styles. On My Point Of View from the previous year, wannabe jukebox hit “Blind Man, Blind Man” sat alongside the modal labyrinth of “King Cobra”. Empyrean Isles takes this process of specialisation even further. It presents, in Hancock's typically bold manner, a demonstration of four major structuring principles of jazz – harmony, modes, grooves and improvisation – one for each of the album's four tracks.
The etymology of the word empyrean is Greek, and it means ‘in fire or light’. That perhaps informs Francis Wolff’s cover photography, where the sun glinting on the sea appears, in soft focus, as a tongue of fire. But the term has connotations of heaven and creation, and is associated with the conclusion of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The album’s title thus resonates with its genealogical ambitions, and the idea of birth is also alluded to by “The Egg”, a 14 minute track that's almost entirely improvised.
But the idea of genesis also unlocks “Oliloquoi Valley”, the album’s modal track, and one of Hancock’s deepest cuts. Oliloqui bears a strong resemblance to Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where some of the most detailed evidence of early human evolution was found. East African language and culture is a recurrent interest in Hancock's work – the name of the Mwandishi group and its members was Swahili. Discoveries in the 20th century of early human remains rewrote the rulebook on the birth of humanity, and it’s appropriate that an album breaking down jazz’s past, present and future should echo its name.
Whether or not the echoes of Olduvai Gorge are deliberate, the topography of the track has an appropriate starkness. Duke Pearson, pianist and A&R man for Blue Note at the time, took the unusual step of prefacing the sleevenotes to the album by noting the unusual group format: piano (Hancock), bass (Ron Carter), drums (Anthony Williams) and cornet (Freddie Hubbard) the only horn, leaving a gaping chasm in the mid-range. “Oliloqui Valley” is distinctive from the first note, after an unaccompanied bass lick(later sampled by Eric B and Rakim), Hubbard’s cornet floats like a bird circling over cliffs.
Pearson addresses the lack of mid-range, and how it changed the group dynamic. “Hancock, who composed and arranged all the tunes, wrote them to sound more like improvisations than ensemble melodies... Free sketches were written in such a way that each instrument is allowed great flexibility of interpretation.” So “Oliloqui Valley” is not free, but is deliberately open ended, and one of the most fertile pieces in all of jazz. The structure of the core section is ingenious – each chord is a neat transposition of a previous one, and the process repeats so that the instruments circle restlessly like vultures, alighting on the root chord only briefly. Like Hancock’s “King Cobra”, change is the essence of the piece, and the music suggests a form of travel. Although the chord transposition has echoes of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”, rather than providing a platform for explosive improvisation, “Oliloqui Valley” sees Hancock leading Hubbard, interjecting with piano figures and riddles.
Here as elsewhere, Hancock is an obsessive, brooding pianist. Rather than exploring the colours of melody and harmony, he returns to particular notes and clusters to tease out their undertones, and melodies are folded in on themselves to see what happens. This interrogation of piano technique makes Hancock perhaps the great meta-musician of jazz. “Oliloqui Valley”, like much of his work, is simultaneously both abstract and introspective, even self-centred.
Hancock is often namechecked by techno and electro artists, most frequently in connection with his 1970s and 80s monster jams “Chameleon” and “Rockit” and the pioneering electronic experimentation of the Mwandishi group. But “Oliloqui Valley” is just as futuristic. Like dance music, it experiments with texture and repetition; motion is central to the music; and the topographic dimension of “Oliloqui Valley” is echoed by techno cartographers of imaginary realms such as Drexciya and Jeff Mills.
Talking many years later to Bob Belden, another former Blue Note A&R, for the sleevenotes of a box set of his 60s recordings, Hancock disclosed that only once he finished a piece would a title come to mind. So the album and track titles of Empyrean Isles were presumably all decided retrospectively, and the biblical and historical references should be taken as casual allusions rather than a rigorous manifesto (‘oliloqui’ could even be a riff on ‘soliloquy’ – an allusion perhaps to Hubbard's role as solo horn player on the record).
But playing with and presenting new concepts has always been one of Hancock’s great strengths, from the electric fusions of Mwandishi and Headhunters to the acoustic late 70s group VSOP, which was packaged as the second coming of Miles Davis's second great quintet. The name changes across Herbie Hancock’s career can be seen as a kind of shapeshifting. Again, there are echoes of techno – Carl Craig’s hide and seek games with his 69 and Paperclip People pseudonyms, or Jeff Mills and Robert Hood’s comic book coinings of their X-102 and X-103 projects. Hancock has always known how to sell himself, and for an African-American artist, that is infinitely preferable to being sold by others. That is the true significance of Empyrean Isles, and why Hancock's work resonates in both the past and the future.