Herbert Jeffrey Hancock has been at the cutting edge of technology for many of his 82 years. Like his contemporary Stevie Wonder, he developed a taste for synthesizers and electronics long before they were widespread, and he has fearlessly explored new genres like hip hop, funk, and electronica since leaving the Miles Davis Quintet in 1968 to go solo. Born in Chicago in 1940, he was a child prodigy, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when he was just 11. His path as a classical pianist was already mapped out before him, though he chose jazz instead. “I think risk-taking is a great adventure,” he once said, “and life should be full of adventures.”
That sense of curiosity became heightened by his meditation practice in the 1970s, and whilst he’s not involved in the graphic design process of his work, the openness with which he approaches each project leaves room for the designers he chooses to surprise him. He also has an uncanny knack for choosing the right people to work with. Herbie Hancock’s discography is anything but a coherent body of work — neither visually nor musically. But it’s his unpredictability and adventurousness that make him such an alluring figure, along with his sense of humility (despite winning 17 Grammys). His artwork, similarly, projects that ebullience and sense of fun.
Inventions & Dimensions (1964)
The front cover of Herbie Hancock’s third album was created by the man who was responsible for his first two: Chicago-born graphic designer Reid Miles. Miles needs no introduction to Blue Note aficionados, having worked on more than 500 sleeves for the legendary jazz label between 1955 and 1967. As with his work for Inventions & Dimensions, he usually worked with just two or three colors to give that unmistakable look that has come to define the record company’s aesthetic.
Some of the label’s greatest hits were his greatest hits too: Freddie Hubbard’s Hub-Tones, Lee Morgan’s Lee-Way, and John Coltrane’s Blue Train. All of Reid’s covers for Herbie Hancock are works of art, though Inventions & Dimensions is interesting for its perspective: taken from the road with a New York City backdrop by Blue Note acolyte Francis Wolff, it was almost certainly a nod to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, a bluesy folk album released the year previous that transcended its categorization to become a cultural milestone. The album cover shot from the lowdown perspective of the road with convergence lines increasing in size as they hove into view has become a genre in itself too, from Kraftwerk’s Autobahn to Bastille’s Bad Blood via the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Stoned and Dethroned.
As great as Blue Note’s assertive house style was, once he’d left the jazz label Hancock was able to impose more of his own ideas in collaboration with Robert Springett, an artist who was no doubt enamored with Mati Klarwein’s cover art for Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.
Black consciousness was clearly on Hancock’s mind when he recorded 1969’s The Prisoner with its literal representation of entrapment (the type doubles up as a square cage), though in 1972, Herbie was beginning to think more abstractly, having converted to Nichiren Buddhism and absorbed himself in meditation.
With the rise of space rock —from Sun Ra to Hawkwind — the sleeve for 1973’s jazz fusion album Sextant depicts dancing warriors in a Drexciya-like utopia with many of the signifiers that came to be known retrospectively as Afrofuturism: a planet, a pyramid, stars, and a rune symbol.
Sextant followed 1972’s Crossings, the second album in the Mwandishi trilogy, which depicted refugees traversing a river on the front of the album. Happily one of those displaced itinerants has made it onto the back cover of Sextant, finding a home for himself under the watchful gaze of Buddha, surrounded by protective lotus flowers.
The Spanish-American psychedelic artist Victor Moscoso took charge of Headhunters, Herbie Hancock’s surprise crossover breakthrough from 1973 — a record sleeve that has aged well in a world filled with emojis and filters. The traditional band shot has been subverted with a cartoonish kple kple mask, unceremoniously placed over Hancock’s head, though the main man reappears on the flipside. Kple kple masks are worn by child performers who dance at the goli, a Baoulé tribe funeral for elders in the Ivory Coast, with the kple kple supposedly the least prestigious of the goli masks — though how much research went into their significance is unclear. The eagle-eyed will notice the smile on the masked head is created by an upside down VU meter, which used to measure sound levels in recording studios before the advent of digital and LED Electronic Audio Volume Indicators.
During the 70s, CBS/Sony Japan cornered the domestic market in live jazz fusion albums, putting out a series of Japan-only releases for Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Santana, Herbie Hancock, and other western artists like Bob Dylan. Flood captures the Headhunters band in full swing in Tokyo, but the real star here is illustrator Nobuyuki Nakanishi, painting one of the most exuberantly psychedelic and baffling album covers of all time.
Under the direction of Teruhisa Tajima, who would go on to establish the Thesedays art collective, Nakanishi went to town with Flood, with lava meeting water and an unperturbed Herbie Hancock in full astronaut garb meeting a massive coelacanth. To top it all off, Tajima has chosen the font Stop for the title, a futuristic sans serif that was only a few years old when this record was first released (it was reissued internationally in 2018).
Future Shock (1983)
Herbie Hancock is famously an early adopter, and his sense of curiosity means no two albums in his extensive back catalog are the same. Future Shock, with its name borrowed from writer and futurist Alvin Tofler, embraces technology like never before as he explores an emerging artform called hip hop.
Hancock has admitted he was perplexed by the Godley & Creme directed video for Future Shock track ‘Rockit’, starring a houseful of robots and a memorable pair of animatronic legs, though he was more than happy to accept the awards it accrued as the song became his biggest worldwide hit. For the album artwork, he employed the services of David Em, a pioneer in computer art who was manipulating digital media before personal computers became widespread. Em was apparently the first artist to produce navigable virtual worlds in 1977, using NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The virtual landscape on 1983’s Future Shock sleeve is a little passé now, though it retains a certain retrofuturist charm.