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How Herbie Hancock Keeps Jazz Standard Maiden Voyage Fresh With Improvisation

Written by MasterClass

Nov 1, 2018 • 2 min read

Written by MasterClass

Nov 1, 2018 • 2 min read

Now a jazz standard, Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” was originally composed as a jingle for a cologne commercial. When he composed the “Maiden Voyage” song in 1965, Herbie was playing piano with the Second Miles Davis Quintet—which included drummer Tony Williams and bassist Ron Carter. Tony Williams and Ron Carter joined Herbie in the “Maiden Voyage” recording, alongside George Coleman on tenor saxophone and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet.

What Is the History of Maiden Voyage?

The concept album, recorded by specialty jazz producer Rudy von Golder and put out on the Blue Note label, is considered one of Herbie’s best pieces of work; it includes other classics like “Dolphin Dance,” “Survival of the Fittest,” “Little One,” and “In the Eye of the Hurricane.” Herbie himself, however, has said that “Maiden Voyage” is his favorite composition. It’s not hard to understand why, as Herbie wrote in the liner notes that it was written to evoke “the splendor of a sea-going vessel on its maiden voyage.”

But just because Maiden Voyage is a one of the most essential albums in the canon of jazz standards now, doesn’t mean it’s static. After all, the beauty of jazz is that it’s always changing and evolving, depending on who’s playing it. Herbie himself talks about how he loves to play with “Maiden Voyage,” improvising to change the song we know and love. And the best way to approach that kind of improvisation? Playing alone.

How Can You Incorporate Improvisation into a Classic?

Herbie remembers a realization that forever changed the way he approached solo piano playing. It sounds simple, but it opened up worlds of complexity for him: if you’re playing alone, you can do whatever you want. Unlike playing with a band, where you usually stick to a certain tempo and a certain key, in solo playing you can change tempos and keys at will. You can mess with the form of the song, repeat parts, and leave parts out. You can add completely unrelated improvised sections.

One way Herbie approaches solo playing is to use thematic material from the original song and interpret it in different ways. For instance, he might latch on to a few chords or a section of the main melody and transform it across different keys or over different periods of time.

“You can play solo piano or a solo instrument using thematic material from the original song and not being stuck to use the form of the original song,” Herbie says. “And you come up with something entirely new and hopefully fresh.”

How Does Herbie Keep “Maiden Voyage” Fresh?

With “Maiden Voyage,” Herbie takes segments of the original melody and repeats them in different keys. He plays with the song, creating something based in the familiar, but still new to the ear. It’s that combination of familiar and fresh that makes and improvised piece great.

“Sometimes the relationship was the same; sometimes it was slightly different,” Herbie says about his improvised version of the “Maiden Voyage” song. “But I think you can clearly hear that this was played in different keys and I moved around in ways that, frankly, I didn’t used to do before.”

The Single Best Tip For Improvising: Use a Lead Sheet

If you want to try out Herbie’s improvisation method with “Maiden Voyage,” start with the “Maiden Voyage” lead sheet. Practice the song as it’s written, until you can play it by heart. Once you’ve gotten there, you can leave the lead sheet behind and start improvising. Change the keys. Move things around. Don’t be afraid to experiment, like Herbie does. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even create the next great jazz standard.

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