Herbie Hancock had already long established his jazz credentials, primarily with his own now classic releases on Blue Note, and also with his wide array of sideman work; with among many others, Miles Davis. With 1973’s ‘Head Hunters’ though, he successfully crossed over into funk territory, with even more popular and commercial rewards; but still maintaining a strong jazz personality, including through his next subsequent releases.
With ‘Secrets’ however, his fourth in the jazz-funk vein, an alarming realisation of creative diminishing-returns comes to the fore. The previously strong mix of two genres melded together had started to feel a little too smooth-sounding with his third effort ‘Man Child’, which added guitars to the mix, as well as increasing the band roster quite heavily. ‘Secrets’, continuing this move, gives even more greater playing time to the guitars, and also sounds more funk-pop than anything funk-jazz.
For one, the emphasis here is on the mellower, softer side of the musical palette, with very little approaching up-tempo, and that which does is still given a distinctly relaxed edge. There’s no high-energy here, just rolling head-nodding grooves - many of which tend to go on far too long. ‘Doin’ It’ is a great example of this; opening with a slight disco inflection and sounding like a killer dancefloor hit - albeit for just two minutes. Repeating itself over six minutes, nothing much changes or happens, and it flatly wears its welcome out. ‘People Music’ sounds better, but basically feels like an attempt to re-do ‘Butterfly’, but in a different groove.
And much in the way the Hancock classic ‘Watermelon Man’ was re-worked successfully as an electric and funkier number for ‘Head Hunters’, here he takes another of his previous hits, ‘Canteloupe Island’ (arguably his most well-known number), and attempts to do something similar. But it really does not work at all. Almost unrecognisable, an electric guitar leads a yawning saunter, with the familiar melody coming in buried under an array of keyboard and synthesizer effects. It’s a largely lazy-sounding failure that surely can’t have anyone preferring it to the original.
The second half of the album is better however, with some nice seguing and an overall build to something close to climactic. The whole album though convinces that perhaps the energy, the enthusiasm and the ideas have all gone, and Hancock doesn’t know where to go from here. The drumming, previously a high-voltage and highly enjoyable part of the Hancock funk sound, is here just basic and simple, supplying little more than an at times metronomic beat for everyone else to follow. Another notable difference is Melvin Ragin AKA the self-dubbed ‘Wah Wah Watson’ on guitar and vocals. Whilst his guitar is flamboyantly good and well-suited, he also assists heavily on the composition and production duties, and you sense that it’s these contributions that have moved the album to its more ‘flat-sounding’ territory.
Yet there is still a good deal to enjoy and appreciate; Bernie Maupin emerges again as the hero, with his variety of saxophones and flutes, leading most of the solos along with Hancock’s numerous electric keyboards (no acoustic pianos here at all). Paul Jackson’s basslines too are as ever solid anchors for the band.
If you loved ‘Head Hunters’ and ‘Thrust’, those same vibes and sounds aren’t here. But if you liked ‘Man Child’, then there’s probably maybe something here for you. The multiple rhythms and layers, infectious grooves and spaced-out keyboards that made his earlier fusion efforts so good are sadly absent, replaced with a variety of not-quite-funky guitar and mellow sounds, and a decidedly more Caribbean feel. Not a great deal of it is very memorable however, and much of the tracks drag on without developing or finding a direction. If it sounds like the man had lost his hunger for it, tellingly his next few releases would be with the new all-acoustic quintet, alongside his Miles Davis cohorts and the swaggering trumpet of Freddie Hubbar, V.S.O.P. Buy those instead.