Vinyl Spotlight: Herbie Hancock, Empyrean Isles (Blue Note 4175) [“Blue Label” Stereo Reissue]

  • United Artists stereo reissue circa 1972-1975
  • “VAN GELDER” stamped in dead wax


  • Freddie Hubbard, trumpet
  • Herbie Hancock, piano
  • Ron Carter, bass
  • Tony Williams, drums

Recorded June 17, 1964 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey
Originally released November 1964

This is one of my favorite Herbie Hancock albums. It has a soft, gentle vibe that I return to time and time again when I want to listen to something quiet. The quartet with trumpet seems like the perfect minimal arrangement for this album, and even though I’m not the biggest Freddie Hubbard fan, I find that he fits in with the rest of the group like a glove here. I love the cover too. Reid Miles had a way of making album art reflect the music contained within, and with this album, the simple, out-of-focus image of shimmering water cast in a teal blue tint complements the music extremely well…even the pronunciation of the title has a calming sort of effect (“Em-PEE-ree-in”).

Although the album’s closing track, “The Egg”, ventures out a bit too far for my taste, the other three compositions are all favorites. “Cantaloupe Island” sounds like part three in a trilogy of soulful, radio-friendly Hancock compositions that began with “Watermelon Man” and “Blind Man, Blind Man”, but side 1 consists of sixteen of my favorite minutes in music. Eighteen-year-old (Eighteen!) Tony Williams’ drumming is fiery, imaginative and expressive, but it also manages to avoid ever being loud or pushy. His kit sounds incredible here as well, especially his ride cymbal. Engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s spacious Englewood Cliffs studio had a way of making drum kits sound colossal when they needed to, which can be heard during Williams’ solo on “One Finger Snap”. Who would have ever thought that Blue Note darling Freddie Hubbard would pair with the rhythm section of Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet so well?