Forty years after Directstep, Herbie Hancock’s oft-overlooked album stands as a symbol of what was to come
Grammy Award winner, Academy Award winner, legendary jazz pianist and composer. Herbert “Herbie” Hancock wears these hats and many others, and he’s earned every one of them through the decades he’s spent exploring what music is and what it has the potential to become.
The sheer volume of material he’s recorded is tremendous by today’s standards—by the time he delivered 1979’s Directstep he had already released more than 20 studio, live and soundtrack albums in 17 years, during which time he’d also spent a few years with Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet here and a few years leading The Headhunters there.
Forty years after Directstep, the album can’t count itself as one of Hancock’s most popular releases. After Hancock recorded the album in two days in Tokyo, the CBS/Sony label released Directstep in Japan only, making it difficult for the material to gain as much traction with American audiences as albums like 1974’s Thrust (which climbed to 13 on The Billboard 200) or 1978’s Sunlight (which generated a somewhat successful—though non-charting—single for Hancock with “I Thought It Was You”). Oddly, two of the three songs on Directstep are in fact reimagined works from both of those particular titles: Thrust’s “Butterfly” and the aforementioned “I Thought It Was You” off Sunlight, with “Shiftless Shuffle” serving as a then-unreleased mediator between the two that had also existed within Hancock’s repertoire for years and woold later find a home on 1980’s Mr. Hands. Outlined in this way, Directstep seems like it could have existed as a throwaway exercise, a way to spend studio time to keep muscle memory fresh between larger projects. In reality, it’s the album’s role as a bridge between ideas that makes it so valuable to Hancock’s legacy.
The album’s title is the first gesture to that bridge. Named for the direct-to-disc recording process that Hancock and producer David Rubinson used in the studio, the album became one of the first collections of its kind to be experimentally released on CD. The opportunity to test new recording technology was a big one for Hancock, especially at this point in his career. In the 10 years after parting ways with Davis’ quintet, Hancock had transformed from distrusting the fusion of jazz and popular music to pursuing it earnestly—and the constant stream of technological innovations in the studio was only expanding the possibilities open to musicians. In liner notes that appeared on a 2004 reflective reissue of Directstep’s follow-up The Piano, Hancock raved over the in-studio experiments he was able to perform during this time. The challenge of playing a piece well enough in the direct-to-disc format to avoid later editing, when paired with the potential Hancock saw in the vocoder as a tool for augmenting sound, created a friendly environment for trial and error.
“I had the opportunity to be involved with these new technologies and approaches from the ground floor as the initial concepts were being developed,” Hancock wrote of this time period in The Piano reissue’s liner notes. His emphasis on the opportunity he recognized before him says it all. What would “I Thought It Was You” sound like with even heavier vocoder treatment? How might “Shiftless Shuffle” and “Butterfly” morph with the benefits of these developing production aids?
The answer is simply that the songs sound different, like spinoffs of, or tributes to, the originals, with a little spice added. They also sound like appropriate samples of material from the musician Hancock was becoming. Supported on Directstep by a few of his Headhunters (Bennie Maupin, Paul Jackson and Bill Summers) with Alphonse Mouzon on drums, Ray Obiedo on electric guitar and Webster Lewis buttressing Hancock on the keys, Hancock is on this album in the process of evolving his musical style and interests. Joining Davis on the road and in the studio was the biggest break Hancock could have hoped for as an aspiring 23-year-old jazz musician, but by 1978 that event was just the first of many doors that opened for him. As early as 1966, Hancock was dipping his toes into film scoring, with the soundtrack for Blow-Up serving as his first big project. Hancock went on to compose for the TV special Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert in 1969, the film The Spook Who Sat by the Door in 1973, Death Wish in ’74 and, years later, won an Academy Award for his work on 1986’s Round Midnight.
As Hancock popped in and out of Hollywood, the music he was releasing as a recording artist was similarly showcasing his embrace of popular culture. He was increasingly interested in the popular music of the moment, curiosity that resulted in his exploration of funk, disco and rap. By the 1980s it was almost expected to see Hancock appear as a guest artist on an album predicted to chart or onstage alongside other big hitters within the recording industry. In the span of two decades, Hancock made the leap between jazz purist to musical weather vane, a once trusted ensemble player who had enough confidence in his skill to take on one risky project after the next. Somewhere along the way, he found himself inside a Tokyo studio, surrounded by new technology that didn’t yet have the full understanding or support of the critics who followed his trajectory.
More than a half-century after his career began, we now think of Hancock as a master musician, easily able to bridge the gaps between genres and, in doing so, expose listeners to new music. Directstep is rarely cited as a sample of his best work; it’s an exploratory dive into what new technology had to offer, performed on songs Hancock felt comfortable pulling in new directions. When this album was released in January 1979, there was no way to tell that the artist behind it was on his way to becoming a musical icon, one who would win awards for his work in music and film. But the signs of potential were there, lying just beneath the surface. It’s Hancock’s curiosity that’s enabled him to stay relevant. Faced with new recording processes and listeners’ evolving tastes in music, many musicians fall out of line quickly—but Hancock has always managed to stay in step.