“Before I get to my selection, I just want to say a few words about Blue Note Records. I can’t name a more perfect unification of design, vision, and consistent execution of almost any American company. Seemingly every single output is perfectly designed and laid out, a visual piece of art in its own right. As much as we like to admonish ourselves not to judge a book, or record, by its cover, we can’t help it, and we likely never will. But it’s the sound that I love most, and we are consistently rewarded with what’s inside each output. It’s not always the cleanest, clearest mix, but we forgive all of that because the result of Rudy Van Gelder’s choices (the recording engineer on many of the classic records) is so rich, warm, almost dripping wet with grease and sweat (in a good way). I am usually paying closer attention to the pianists on these records, and the sound of the recording achieves a punch so powerful you can almost feel it, almost beyond what a typical piano is even capable of. You can hear overtones almost as if they were actually played, which has often made transcribing to learn what they are doing rather difficult. But I don’t care, the overall sound is more enjoyable than my desire to learn is frustrated. And this is to say nothing about the content of each record and the mastery of the musicians playing it, which are always at the very least deeply satisfying, and often sublime.
My selection speaks to the latter distinction. Herbie Hancock’s ‘Inventions and Dimensions’ was one of the very first records I really ‘listened’ to as a teenager. There were lots of records I thought were hip, but I pretty immediately sensed there was something special going on with this one. The Afro-Cuban rhythms of the very first track drew me in, as that is not a common element. Hancock is working with a Rhythm Section with a capital R.S. Willie Bobo, on drums and timbales, is clearly at home playing Latin-tinged rhythms and can also swing his butt off. Bassist Paul Chambers, who always swings naturally and tastefully, can also clearly hang playing tumbao-style bass. They are able to go back and forth seamlessly between both worlds, which is not easy to pull off. Additionally, Chambers seems to be the anchor, the glue that holds the whole thing together while Hancock goes exploring and Bobo lays down a steady, constant groove. Osvaldo “Chihuahua” Martinez joins them on additional percussion on all but one track. This record seems to set up his 70s albums like Headhunters and Thrust more than anything else he put out during the 60s, with it’s reliance on rhythm and percussion, and eschewing tight structure in favor of grooves and gradually unfolding, unhurried improvisations.
Hancock is a subversive trickster magician inter-dimensional traveler, and he fools you into thinking that everything is just groovin’ as groovin’ can be. In the opening seconds of the first track “Succotash” (onomatopoeically named after the rhythm of the cabasa shaker), each musician enters one by one emphasizing a different aspect of a 12/8 Afro-Cuban rhythm, such that by the time Hancock enters, you’ve already gone on a wild journey in less than 30 seconds, and they’re just getting started. Most of the album is a series of contained streams of consciousness. Only track 4, “Mimosa,” contains anything resembling a head and harmonic structure (and it’s a beautiful cha-cha-like ballad). For the rest, the only things that seem to hold the tracks together are a groove, a starting tonality, maybe one or two predetermined destinations, and just a willingness to follow each other wherever the path may lead. I have spun this record well over a hundred times at this point, and I still marvel at the endless stream of ideas Hancock generates out of nowhere, and I am still surprised at where they lead and that, no matter where they end up or how far they roam, they never stray from the groove or some semblance of tonality and return to someplace that feels like home. It is still exciting to listen to and so unlike most Blue Note records of that era.” – Jonny Peiffer