Herbie Hancock on "Riot"

A few weeks ago, I had two back-to-back lessons with Miguel and John McNeil. At the end of my lesson with Miguel, I was asked to transcribe Herbie's solo on "Riot," the opening track from Speak Like a Child (1968); in my lesson with John, this same solo was recommended to me for study. When I told John how Miguel had just mentioned the same solo, he cracked a big grin and was visibly delighted to hear that other musicians were checking out the same music. He told me an anecdote about asking a saxophonist in the
Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock, 2007 (Wikimedia Commons)
past to study the solo over winter break, and how his phrasing was transformed after studying the solo.

At this point, there was no way I could not transcribe the solo, so I went ahead and checked it out for myself. This isn't the flashiest Herbie I've heard (compared to his solo on "No More Blues" from Double Rainbow, for instance), but it's certainly some of the most thoughtful and coolly burning, if that makes sense. To me, the way that Herbie nurtures ideas with and against Ron Carter and Mickey Roker on this track is the most instructive aspect of the solo; there's an undeniable and an enviable cohesion between the musicians that allows the music to move as a product of their combined efforts, rather than as a product of a soloist guiding a rhythm section or vice-versa.

Of course, it's also necessary to acknowledge the wondrous textures provided by the horn line (Jerry Dodgion on alto flute, Thad Jones on flugelhorn, and Peter Phillips on base trombone), and Uri Caine writes about this too in his recommendation of the track:

On “Riot” I like the marriage between a very sophisticated arrangement and a group structure in which a small ensemble is playing versus Herbies solo. Theres one moment when Herbie has finished the first part of the solo, the ensemble comes in, sets up the next part, and Herbie hits this perfect chord. You get the feeling that hes reacted to whats going on with the arrangement that he wrote, but also that he found this new area, and BOOM, he hit this chord and hes off again.
I'm still working on the devilishly quick ascending and descending patterns that Herbie rolls along at the end of his solo (some proto-Ligetian "Devil's Staircase?"), but there's plenty more to pick up, e.g., the sounds Herbie uses outside of his single-line playing, but I'll have to return to that at a later date. Here's the solo:

* * * * *

I apologize in advance for any mistakes in the bare-bones changes I've included in the transcription; I'll have to go back at some point to transcribe Ron's bass line and the comping changes Herbie plays to get a better sense of what's being implied by each musician separately and together. Some places are more ambiguous than others, but the oscillation between harmonic ambiguity and clarity contributes, I think, to the beauty of this and other similar performances of this era. 

I'm also going to shamelessly plug the newest installment of my column for the Arts section of The Harvard Crimson. This week is about jazz puns.


  1. Nice going Kevin. "Riot" is a very underrated gem! (from Bill Walter)

  2. You're two beats off after the backgrounds


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