Between 1965’s Maiden Voyage and 1968’s Speak Like a Child, Herbie Hancock was consumed with his duties as part of the Miles Davis Quintet, who happened to be at their creative and popular peak during those three years. When Hancock did return to a leadership position on Speak Like a Child, it was clear that he had assimilated not only the group’s experiments, but also many ideas Milesinitially sketched out with Gil Evans. Like Maiden Voyage, the album is laid-back, melodic, and quite beautiful, but there are noticeable differences between the two records. Hancock’s melodies and themes have become simpler and more memorable, particularly on the title track, but that hasn’t cut out room for improvisation. Instead, he has found a balance between accessible themes and searching improvisations that work a middle ground between post-bop and rock.
Similarly, the horns and reeds are unconventional. He has selected three parts — Thad Jones’ flügelhorn, Peter Phillips’ bass trombone, Jerry Dodgion’s alto flute — with unusual voicings, and he uses them for tonal texture and melodic statements, not solos. The rhythm section of bassist Ron Carter and drummer Mickey Rokerkeeps things light, subtle, and forever shifting, emphasizing the hybrid nature of Hancock’s original compositions. But the key to Speak Like a Child is in Hancock’s graceful, lyrical playing and compositions, which are lovely on the surface and provocative and challenging upon closer listening.