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Herbie Hancock

The Herbie Hancock Box (Sony Legacy)

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On the surface, it's inconceivable that fans and critics would applaud an artist -- then slam his greatest-hits collection, which ostensibly contains the musician's best material. But there are several reasons for this phenomenon. The collection of tracks might be too thin, failing to do justice to the performer's complete body of work. The compilation might reek of crass opportunism if it's released soon after the artist's death, or if it's flimsily structured around a single resurgent song. Or, in the case of Herbie Hancock's translucent Box, it might involve Rubik's Cube-style packaging that makes the damn thing hard to open.

The box looks amazing, with four unmarked silver discs seemingly floating in a clear cube. But that's small consolation to the easily frustrated, some of whom have probably resorted to dashing the contraption against the ground. (To avoid having to sweep up Lucite shrapnel, try this approach: Place your thumb at the bottom of the box and your remaining fingers at the top; pull vigorously. If this fails, rotate the box 180 degrees and try again.) Given that the collection rates an astoundingly low 1.5 out of 5 on Amazon.com's star scale, it's safe to assume several buyers gave up without ever sampling the music.

That's unfortunate, because Box offers the best comprehensive overview yet of Hancock's career. Hancock's 1990 Greatest Hits stretched both of its titular terms, featuring just six songs, only one of which ("Chameleon") could be considered essential. His remastered 2000 collection improved on its predecessor, but it disastrously diluted its program with three tracks from 1980's abysmal snoozer Monster.

By contrast, the sixteen tracks included on Box's first two discs make an unassailable case for Hancock's early-period greatness. Many of these selections are rare, previously Japanese-import-only live tracks from his riveting ensemble VSOP, which featured Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. The interaction among Hancock (a virtuoso pianist), Carter (whose massive rumbles later provided the foundation for Tribe Called Quest's aptly named Low-End Theory) and Williams (whose self-penned showcase "Para Oriente" pulses with robust rhythms) dazzles, especially during the players' solo-heavy work as a trio. Among the esteemed guests are Wynton Marsalis, whose boisterous blasts make "The Sorcerer" spellbinding, and Bobby McFerrin, whose upper-register scatting on "'Round Midnight" provides the opening discs' only vocal accompaniment.

Disc 3 details Hancock's enthralling experimental period. Filled with faucet-drop percussion and electric piano squiggles, these early-'70s epics helped plant the seeds for the intelligent-dance-music movement, and their deep grooves (from bassists Paul Jackson and cult hero Jaco Pastorious) became fertile foundations for future hip-hop compositions. Although his straight-jazz tunes might be more instrumentally impressive, these future-shocking symphonies find the exciting middle ground between traditional improvisation and modern keyboard technology.

Box's final disc chronicles how easily such ambition can go awry. It was radical for Hancock to stray from his strengths and try his hand at genres such as smooth R&B and disco, but that doesn't make the results any more interesting. There are certainly some keepers here -- "Rockit" introduced mainstream audiences to turntablism, "Chameleon" was a stylistically multihued triumph, the solo track "Nobu" revels in uncharacteristic minimalism -- but they're joined by the Box's only duds. From handing the vocal reins to Ghostbusting guitarist Ray Parker Jr. to letting Bootsy Collins give "Maiden Voyage" an unflattering brassy funk makeover, Hancock made myriad dubious decisions in the late '70s and early '80s, and this disc contains a mercifully brief sampling.

Still, a Box that contains only a handful of skippable songs, all of which are conveniently confined to the same disc, deserves enthusiastic accolades. Accessing its contents might be difficult, but it's well worth the struggle when the payoff is this rich.

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