Electricity is not to be trifled with. Jazz pianists who switched to electric keyboards in the early '70s have discovered the instruments are much more than louder pianos. The new sounds produced by these keyboards have proven difficult toincorporate inot jazz. A few musicians have licked this problem; many others still struggle unsuccessfully. Even more have given up the fight and turned to the tempting fields of pop music.
Herbie Hancock, one of the pioneers in jazz on electric keyboards, seems to have surrendered. His latest electric album, Feets Don't Fail Me Now (Columbia JC 35764), can't be called jazz by any stretch of the definition. It's funky dance music that stays stuck in a deep-rutted groove.
Perhaps to preserve a link to his jazz past, Hancock also has released a two record set of acoustic piano duets: An Evening With Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea in Concert 1978 (Columbia PC2 35663). This album is a restless jazz dialogue with occasional moments of brilliance. But the schizophrenic difference between the two releases seems to be an admission by Hancock that he can no longer play jazz on electric keyboards, only on accoustic piano.
Corea makes no such admission. His newest electric album, Return to Forever Live (Columbia JC 35281), is excellent jazz. Culling the best cuts from an earlier, over-extended and expensive four-record set, it's his strongest record in years. He finally has closed the gap between his acoustic and electric playing. Every piece is based on the fluid, Latin-tinged acoustic technique he displays so well on the acoustic duets album.
On the electric album, he uses his synthesizers to accent key notes within that technique. He will bend and rough them as his longtime associate Stanley Clarke does on the bass; he will stretch them as does his fine three-man trombone section; and he will sustain key notes and chords with the resonance of a saxophone the way an acoustic piano can't.
Like other jazz pianists who switched to electronics-most notably Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Jan Hammer and George Duke-Corea spent a long time exploring the new sound possibilities of his technological tools. Many of the early electronic jazz albums sound a bit like science fair projects.
But eventually, Corea and Zawinul satisfied themselves and turned their attention to using the discovered sounds in composing and performing jazz. They abandoned their earlier technological overskill and self-indulgence and made some fine records.
Hancock, Hammer and Duke have all but abandoned electric jazz for rock 'n' roll and funk. Many jazz musicians and critics feel that jazz players who stoop to pop music are demeaning themselves-an attitude smacking of the same arrogance that the classical world has long had for jazz. Good rock 'n' roll is just as worthwhile a pursuit as good jazz, though the two have entirely different criteria.
In 1969, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis boasted that he was going to form "the best damn rock 'n' roll band in the world." He didn't even come close. His bands, which included Hancock, Corea and Zawinul, pioneered electronic jazz. But they never understood the personal monologues, catchy hooks, dramatic structure and steady dancebeat that go into great rock 'n' roll.
Still the arrogance persists that any good jazz musician can become a great rock 'n' roll musician simply by taking up the form. The failure of Herbie Hancock's Feets Don't Fail Me Now is not that he's playing rock 'n' roll but that he's playing mediocre rock 'n' roll. Hancock takes his title from a Funkadelic hit single, but his music is a lifeless imitation of that group's funk form of rock 'n' roll.
Hancock's dance beat is relentless, his chords basic, and his solos short and unadventuresome. Five of the six songs have awful vocals. The lyrics are mindless. Hancock's singing is fed through a Sennheiser Vocorder-a sort of vocal synthesizer-and emerges with all the personality of computer.
Hancock's keyboard playing is far less interesting than the work of Funkadelic's Bernie Worrell. Worrell has just released his first solo album, All the Woo-in the World (Arista AB 4209), though he is joined on it by the entire Funkadelic clan. Worrell sticks to a solid dance beat but surrounds it with witty digressions, fresh harmonies and imaginative solos. If Hancock wants to play funk, he should take a lesson from Worrell.
Jan Hammer switched to electric keyboards when-he joined the Mahavishnu Orchestra led by Miles Davis' electric guitarist, John McLaughlin. Recently Hammer claimed: "I've played every style of music you can imagine, from the most traditional classical structures to the most shapeless avant-grade. I played the high-intensity Mahavishnu stuff and I've played the world's most complicated time signatures. But now I've lost interest in all those things. There is a much bigger challenge, which is making the pure rock 'n' roll concept work."
It proves to be much of a challenge for Hammer. His new album, Black Sheep (Asylum 6E-173), is straightahead rock 'n' roll but not very interesting. Hammer makes his synthesizer sound like an electric guitar and then boasts on the liner notes: "There is no guitar on this album." This is a neat technological trick, but the boring guitar solos that result sound more like Styx and Bob Welch than Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.
Corea's newfound sense of control also serves him well on the duet album with Hancock. Though the album is co-produced by Hancock and David Rubinson (co-producers of Feets Don't Fail Me Now ) and Hancock's compositions get more time than Corea's, the right channel carrying Corea's playing is always the more interesting.
Hancock's progressions run fluidly but predictably through the themes and variations. Corea's playing, however, poses contradictions to the themes at every turn and then resolves them with his intuitive imagination. Hancock's playing is impressive, but Corea's is impressive and surprising at the same time.
Electronic keyboards have become a testing ground full of temptations and obstacles for a generation of jazz pianists. Corea seems to have met the test. Hancock and may others have not. CAPTION: Picture, Herbie Hancock, one of the pioneers on electric keyboards, has "all but abandoned jazz for rock 'n' roll and funk."