Herbie Hancock Inventions & Dimensions
Pete La Roca Basra
or nearly four years -- 44 months to be exact -- Ron Rambach and Joe Harley of Music Matters have religiously churned out standard-setting reissues of Blue Note recordings that they've shipped in pairs each month. These 88 LPs comprise a library of consequential jazz from arguably jazz's most consequential label, and they represent a broad cross-section of musical styles -- from bop, to hard bop (Blue Note's bread and butter), to more challenging outsider jazz that helped define Blue Note's probing, cutting-edge ethic. Ron and Joe know this music inside out, so an important feature of the Music Matters series has been having them as guides through the immense catalogue and its broad, sometimes rough terrain.
Earlier this year, Music Matters announced that it would take a summer hiatus from the monthly grind, but not before choosing thirteen more titles to release, bringing the total to 101 -- "Blue Note 101," as the series is now cleverly called. Among the first six are these two mid-'60s titles, one from the label's most mercurial pianist and another from a drummer who decided to abandon a productive musical career.
Inventions & Dimensions was Herbie Hancock's fourth Blue Note release, following the popular and critically successful Empyrean Isles (which Music Matters has also re-released). The quartet he assembled included a bassist, the inestimable Paul Chambers, and two percussionists: Willie Bobo on drums and "Chihuahua" Martinez on conga and bongos. The drummers hint at the direction of the music: a challenging blend of post-bop stylings and Latin rhythms. Hancock was loose and luminous throughout, the chugging "Succotash," which opens the record, providing a framework for the music that follows. You can't miss those two drummers throughout, though this is clearly Hancock's set, his improvisations abounding with urgency and playfulness.
Basra was the only Blue Note session Pete La Roca led, and it's a tour de force of hard-bop experimentation. La Roca works with saxophonist Joe Henderson, pianist Steve Kuhn, and bassist Steve Swallow; the latter two would become known for their work on the ECM label. La Roca wrote three of the five tunes here, including the majestic title cut. This quartet would record together just this one time, and it is one of those enchanting moments where musical personalities clicked and created a singular expression. It's also a testament to a career that burned half as long and, in this one instance, twice as bright. La Roca is suggestive of alto sax player John Jenkins, who released a single Blue Note album (John Jenkins with Kenny Burrell, also a Music Matters release) and only three in total, all in 1957. Like Jenkins, La Roca, who became a lawyer, makes us consider what could have been.
The sound of these 45rpm sets is exemplary in terms of its thoroughly contemporary balance. They sound nowhere near 50 years old. I have an original pressing of Inventions & Dimensions, and it's thinner, brighter and less palpable than the reissue, whose robust bottom end especially it can't touch. The Music Matters' sound has evolved over time, becoming more vivid and physical -- a change completely for the better. Kevin Gray began doing all of the mastering some time ago, and his influence shows. If you listen to one of the earliest releases before either of these, you'll hear immediately what I mean.
There has been speculation about what Ron and Joe will do after this final baker's dozen of releases have shipped. They may simply mine more Blue Note dates (we all have our wish lists at the ready), or they may turn their ears and efforts toward another important jazz label, giving the Music Matters treatment to a new series of records. Truly, only time will tell, but at this point time has already sealed the legacy of these remarkable reissues.
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