Back in 1972 while some fans still yearned for Herbie Hancock’s sound on Blue Note records, he was heading further into the complete embrace of electrifying jazz with strong free form leanings. After his tenure with Miles Davis, Hancock was searching for his own voice. This took him into the commercial space that would become Headhunters in 1973, His tough group included Billy Hart on drums and percussion, Julian Priester playing various trombones, Eddie Henderson on trumpet plus percussion, Bennie Maupin on several wind instruments, and Buster Williams on bass guitars, all who cut the incredible “Sextant” for Columbia Records. Within the grooves listeners will hear a post-modal, free impressionistic soundscape which grazes the edges of funk. Back in the day, the album was released in both stereo and quadrophonic, and now for the first time it is available on Quad SACD, lovingly transferred from the original analog master tapes by Michael J. Dutton and released on his Vocallian label.
This quad release is a simple, yet creative use of the quadscape. Listeners will find themselves immersed with parts discretely placed all around the sweet spot, along with some fun use movement at key points. There are three long exploratory tracks which investigate the nature of how mode and intervals are boiled down and then strewn out into winding solos. The opening track “Rain Dance” kicks off the album with keyboards reverberating across the soundstage from the back left channel. Its percolating sound is augmented by horn blasts that may be interpreted as wind moving from the front to the rear channels. Dutton has cleaned up any residual tape noise, and defined the overall balance over the mix from the original master tapes. As the piece progresses, the interval becomes the riff which leads to the solo, blended with percussion emanating from the back right and horns falling in the front speakers, along with bass and drums up front.
Pay careful attention to the buzzing synth parts that are edge free and demonstrate why the SACD is such a wonderful replacement for the click and poppy analog vinyl media. Sextant is warm and seems to be absolutely analogous to the master tapes, bringing listeners right into the mixing studio.
A true funky direction is revealed on “Hidden Shadows,” exuding a choppy basslines and dominant percussion, all embellished by the additional synthesizer parts played by Patrick Gleeson and Buck Clarke hitting the congas and bongos. The blending of reverberant horns and closely miced percussion provide a real dichotomy to the mix which continues to surround the listener from all directions. Overall the piece has a real live feel with the bass hitting some nice lows and the drums feeling open with a bit of a club like sound to them. Hancock's piano is more in line with the rhythm section, providing a unified front during the abstract sections of the song, but this is just a lead in to the true masterpiece on the album.
The incredible piece “Hornets” closes out the album, with Dave Rubinson’s production skills taking listeners through an eclectic and electric journey across a dark modal ambience and harmonic dissonance, underpinned by a groove which gets turned inside out by Priester and Maupin all while Hancock accenting with the synth in sections. This 19 minute piece absolutely opens up in the quad space, with keyboard parts flying from side to side with brutal intensity all while being stunningly beautiful, providing a glimpse into the music that was forthcoming on his next release “Headhunters.”
For stereophiles, the DSD 2.0 layer of course flattens the mix, and I found it to be slightly warmer with a bit less brilliance at the top end. Sure beats the CD version that had been in my collection for many years, and for those with SQ decoding capability, the album is repeated in SQ on tracks 4 to 6 on the stereo layer. This is the first time I recall running across an SQ version embedded on an SACD, and while I don’t have the decoding equipment, I welcome this from an archival perspective, along with a little nudge to myself to possibly pick up a SQ decoder!
Every Vocallion SACD in my collection sounds excellent, and this latest reissue of Herbie Hancock’s album Sextant maintains their level of excellence. Fans of fusion jazz, improvisational jazz, Herbie Hancock, and any of the other musicians found on this release are strongly recommended to pick up this quad edition. Especially recommended for surround sound, or more specifically quad enthusiasts, as Sextant delivers an impactful mix that makes this a demo worthy quad disc.
Hybrid SACD with both Quad and Stereo layers.
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