As his 60th birthday approaches, Herbie Hancock remains one of a handful of living, innovating jazz giants. His Blue Note catalog from the '60s is overshadowed only by his work in the Miles Davis Quintet with Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter. His recent albums -- the duets with Shorter on "1+1" (1997) and the all-star gathering on "Gershwin's World" (1998) -- show that he's still capable of stretching the music as a serious player.
Which is why there couldn't be a better time to revisit "Future Shock," the album that annoyed critics and purists alike upon release in 1983. The record set off a subsequent series of funky, experimental Hancock projects, most of which are being reissued as well. "Future Shock" also produced a fluky, random pop hit, "Rockit." The turntable-scratching, "Peter Gunn" meets P-Funk instrumental put the jazzman on MTV with a troupe of jerky, robotic video stars.
"Future Shock" offered another dimension of Hancock's personality: the risk-taker who wants to have fun, even if it meant slipping into the background. His playing here is so understated that he could have released the record under another name. If he had to give up credit, he could have ceded it to Bill Laswell, the cheese-funk savant producer responsible for displacing Hancock's nimble fingers and harmonic signatures on "Future Shock" with a weirdo mix of old-school hip-hop and fusion funk.
At the time, Laswell was just developing a reputation in the Downtown New York scene, which would lead to production credits on hundreds of albums over the next decade. More a conductor than a chameleon, he has always imposed his sound on anyone he's produced, whether it's Yoko Ono, Mick Jagger or Bernie Worrell. And that's what he did on "Future Shock," playing bass and co-producing under the moniker of his group, Material.
Except for the dancing piano work on "Autodrive," it's easy to forget that Hancock was along for the ride. Each song has an electric drumbeat, synthesizer and fat bass line. The band -- reggae drummer Sly Dunbar, Grand Mixer D.S.T., former Miles Davis guitarist Pete Cosey, percussionist Daniel Ponce and Material's keyboardist, Michael Beinhorn -- is the star.
The music is jam-based and electric. But the characteristically Laswellian trippiness is also the album's main shortcoming. The songs swim by too quickly, the wordless, synthesized funk turned into background music -- or into the soundtrack to a "Miami Vice" episode. That said, "Rockit" is a great song. There's the unmistakable scratch chorus, Laswell's swimming bass line and Ponce's bongos playing off Hancock's basic melody. But it's easy to start daydreaming during the police chase of "TFS," or during the hockey organ jam on "Rough."
The success of "Future Shock" most likely spawned the Laswell-produced follow-ups included in Legacy's latest Hancock reissues. While "Sound System" (1984) does have its moments -- the six-minute rehash of "Rockit" called "Hardrock" is not one of them -- "Perfect Machine" (1988) unwittingly recalls the scene in "Revenge of the Nerds" when Booger and the boys play their big jock-thrashing concert. It's funny on a Comedy Channel rerun, but no one needs the soundtrack.
Hancock should have stopped with "Future Shock." He made his point, embracing funk and hip-hop by letting the players take over. He also let the jazz purists know that he could stay true to his music and mess with other styles. If "Future Shock" fell short of the more perfect jazz-rap fusion that would hit the charts in the early '90s -- notably Us3's sampling of one of Hancock's Blue Note riffs for "Cantaloop" -- it at least showed that every old school has a few classes in common.