‘Man Child’, Herbie Hancock’s third album of jazz-funk, followed hot on the tail of ‘Thrust’ which itself had swiftly followed the groundbreaking ‘Head Hunters’. Released in 1975 to an expectant audience who had clamoured to the previous rhythm and groove-laden works, ‘Man Child’ now has oddly become one of Hancock’s slightly lesser-known works. ‘Thrust’ had in less than a year changed Hancock’s sound from the raw and cool sounding funk, into something more spacey and trippy with slightly more emphasis on the jazz than the funk. Recording ‘Man Child’, he again changed his sound, this time adding more layers to the ever-increasingly slick mix.
The brilliantly titled ‘Hang Up Your Hang-ups’ opens with some classic sounding of-the-era rhythm guitars and blazing horn work. An awesome funk-pop hybrid, it’s certainly one of Hancock’s most danceable numbers, and the ending breakdown and piano solo come unexpectedly but perfectly. So perfect in fact, that the standard is almost set too high for what has to follow.
‘Sun Touch’ is enjoyable and groovy, and ‘Steppin’ In It’ is also hugely fun and invigorating, with a welcome and sunny guest spot from Stevie Wonder on harmonica. But things begin to come undone with ‘The Trailor’/’The Traitor’ (depending on which issue you get depends on how much spell-checking went on) and ‘Bubbles’. The former has a real bite and power to it, but as with much of Hancock’s later 70’s excursions gets repetitive very quickly, whereas ‘Bubbles’ is just frankly below average, and it’s inclusion sparks worrying curiosity as to the quality control or even the inspiration this time around.
Regardless, having started on a high, things end equally successfully, if distinctly differently. ‘Heartbeat’ is frenetic and twisting; with the band sounding like they’re having a riot of a time, and Hancock gets to close in style with a suitably inspiring solo. It’s up there with some of his best.
All of the musicians here, and there are many, are on top form, with all of the ‘Head Hunters’ and ‘Thrust’ alumni being present against a whole slew more, including Wayne Shorter adding some very nice soprano work. Occasionally though there are just too many instruments, layers and effects all at one time. And with slightly flatter sounding production than before, it all sounds just too slickly commercial. In parts it’s a good sound suiting the pieces, in others it’s all too clean, almost as though someone forgot that part of the earlier charm was that rawer and earthier heavy groove. Also, whereas the previous two albums each contained just four long yet always interesting numbers, the pieces here at times, although shorter, seem to go on for far too long without ever hitting any kind of real direction.
‘Man Child’ ultimately sits at the top of the middle phase of Hancocks funk odyssey. It was here that things started to get too polished and lacking the same energy that infused the earlier works, but the majority is good fun party music and is sure to appeal to fans of the funk.