It was on this day in 1965 that Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), George Coleman (tenor saxophone), Ron Carter (bass) and Anthony Williams (drums) along with Herbie Hancock were at Rudy Van Gelder’d Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey with producer Alfred Lion to cut not just a defining album in the pianists career, but a defining album for Blue Note Records and jazz.
The making of Maiden Voyage was less straightforward than many Blue Note albums, which were so often the result of a single day spent in the studio. At the end of the day, no matter how late and no matter how many takes, there was the finished article. Herbie had already done one session at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio six days earlier: ‘Maiden Voyage’, ‘Little One’ and ‘Dolphin’s Dance’ had all been cut, but there was something missing. For their second day in the studio, it was Tony Williams rather than Stu Martin (who was Sonny Rollins’s drummer) who played on the finished album.
The follow-up to Empyrean Isles, this album is totally different in form and feel, aside from the obvious addition of tenor saxophonist George Coleman who, like most of the others, had been playing in Miles Davis’s band for the previous two years. Departing from the hard bop of the 1964 album this mellow, gentle composition has more of a chamber-jazz vibe – and has been called a sound sculpture. But do not for a minute think this makes it in any way less exciting; this is innovative musical exploration of the highest order. Hancock’s time with Miles Davis comes across in his playing, but in no way is this simply a pastiche of Miles’s music. Just listen to the closing crescendo on ‘Survival of the Fittest’: it owes more to Rachmaninoff than Miles Davis.
‘Maiden Voyage’, originally titled ‘TV jingle’ until Jean Hancock, Herbie’s sister, renamed it, sets the tone and the theme for the album. Ironically, the track was used in a TV commercial by Fabergé sometime later. It is a composition that many artists have covered, including Dianne Reeves who recorded an interesting vocal version in 1996, and pianist Robert Gasper whose fabulous interpretation is on his 2007 Blue Note album, In My Element.
While side 2 opens with the album’s most experimental piece, ‘Survival of the Fittest’ that perfectly reflects the album’s concept – an evocation of ‘oceanic atmospheres’. ‘Dolphin Dance’ is the other classic, deservedly so given Hancock’s skilful writing and equally skilful playing throughout. It’s a tune that offers subtle shifts and changes in both key and the interplay between the soloists. Maiden Voyage is as perfect as an album gets.