William Flynn

Guitarist | Composer | Educator

Herbie Hancock's Intervallic Ideas on "Witch Hunt"

One of my all-time favorite jazz albums is Wayne Shorter's 1964 album Speak No Evil. Along with featuring a stellar line-up of musicians--Shorter on saxophone, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, & Elvin Jones on drums--the album features a stellar line-up of Shorter's original compositions. I always tend to think of the tunes from this album around the Halloween season because many of them were inspired by the spooky, fantastical, and macabre. In this post I'll explore several interesting ideas that Herbie Hancock plays on the album's opening track: "Witch Hunt".

When it comes to album openers, it doesn't get much better than "Witch Hunt". The tune immediately captures the listener's attention with an intricate and cascading horn fanfare before transitioning to an exciting and suspenseful melody, complete with jagged intervals, eerie space, and intense transitions in dynamics. Check it out!

After the melody statement, the tune explodes into three great solos by Shorter, Hubbard, and Hancock. Uber-heavyweight jazz musician and pedagogue Bert Ligon transcribed all three of the solos, and they can be downloaded here. In the following, I'll discuss several unique intervallic ideas that Hancock plays in his solo, which begins around the 5:12 mark in the video.

1. Ascending Fourths

One device that Herbie Hancock uses a lot in this solo is that of moving through a scale in ascending fourths. The first time it pops-up is around 5:44 in the video. When we're first learning our major and minor scales, we spend a lot of time playing them up and down in seconds (i.e. step-wise motion). However, young jazz musicians often don't venture beyond practicing their scales in seconds, and therefore miss out on developing a lot of interesting intervallic ideas. Once you have mastered playing your scales in seconds, begin experimenting with moving through your scales in other intervals (thirds, fourths, fifths, etc.). The example below uses diatonic fourths in D dorian and Ab melodic minor to show how we can improvise using fourths over a ii-V-I.

2. Quartal Triads

Another device that Herbie Hancock uses a lot in this solo is arpeggiated quartal triads (three-note chords built in fourths rather than thirds). Hancock begins his second solo chorus (5:54 in the video) with a long and angular triplet-phrase; arpeggiating quartal triads is one of the many thing he does in this phrase. You can get a handle on quartal triads by simply adding another fourth on top of the ascending fourths discussed above. Much like you can move through a scale using tertian triad arpeggios (C triad, Dm triad, Em triad, F triad, etc.), the same can be done with quartal triad arpeggios. The example below uses quartal triads from D dorian and Ab melodic minor over the same ii-V-I progression.

3. Inverted Quartal Triads

Once you have internalized these root-position quartal triads, try arpeggiating them in inversions. At the beginning of his solo (5:12), Hancock develops a three-note motif that involves a descending perfect fifth and ascending major second: a second inversion quartal triad. The example below again uses D dorian and Ab melodic minor to show how this idea could be implemented over a ii-V-I.

These are some interesting things that stood out to me while recently revisiting "Witch Hunt", and hopefully these intervallic ideas will give you some fun stuff to begin incorporating into your playing. Does anything about "Witch Hunt" stand out to you? How do you work on incorporating fourths or other intervals into your playing? Leave your comments below!

Happy Halloween!