Review Summary: An accessible jazz album combining the playfulness of hard bop with elements of soul and avant-garde.
Here comes Herbie Hancock after everything learned from Andrew Hill and Thelonious Monk for a new rehash. Putting everything cool that language allows. From 1962 through 1968 Herbie had one of the most consistently creative runs jazz has ever seen. If Herbie had stopped recording at that point he would be considered one of the legendary geniuses of American music. With that Freddie Hubbard, a mercenary of the first place where he puts his eye, he plays his cornet, the first cousin of the great Davis. With Tony Williams on drums and Ron Carter on bass, always good traveling companions for Hancock's lucubration.
The album opens with "One Finger Snap", which has a relatively catchy, upbeat motif, then goes into a realm of pretty impressive improvisations. It's not the most overwhelming track though. There's nothing unique about it, but still is far for being bad. The second track, "Oliloqui Vally" starts off with an incredibly bass line riff which leads into a blues formation topped off with a chilling cornet. This song can either gives the impression of being on a tropical island soaking in the sun, or it can take you to a dark smoky jazz club with intellectuals in fedoras hats and dark suits talking about the essence of soul.
This album is mainly known because it contains the original version of the sample that US3 years later used for their crossover hit "Cantaloop". The original "Cantaloupe Island" is somewhat slower, but no less groovy. Furthermore, "Cantaloupe Island" is by far the funkiest of the album. It has an extremely catchy riff that will have everyone tapping their feet. Blues orientated, this song has a sort of down-home feel to it, yet it still obtains that sophistication that is such a part of jazz. It always sounds fresh yet familiar at the same time. Finally, the last song on the original LP is "The Egg", which has a slightly darker mood and an avant-garde rhythmic procession. It starts off with a rhythmic piano motif, then the cornet come up with the melody. During the course of the song, Freddie on the cornet, starts to improvise while the piano riff slowly starts to degenerate, and in the end is improvisation. Then in a most beautiful moment, Ron Carter delivers a mystifying solo on bass using a bow, which is not common for most jazz ensembles. Then Herbie on piano starts tying in with the cello and does some beautifully subtle and minimalistic improvisations. Then song eventually leads back to the main melody and fads out.
Overall, Empyrean Isles
remains one of the highlights of Herbie Hancock's long career and perhaps his most accessible one. Although the first three tracks are certainly not as risky as "The Egg", the album balances hard-bop with Hancock's experimental tendencies enough to make this recording appealing while having a lot of variety and incredibly solid structures, which never slow down. At the end of the day, Empyrean Isles
is a soft gentle jazz album, with "Cantaloupe Island" being one of the most recognizable pieces of jazz of the 60's.