Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly: Analysis of Jazz Covers

Closeup of Herbie Hancock's Thrust album cover

Herbie Hancock‘s “Butterfly”, originally featured on his 1974 album Thrust, is a masterpiece of ethereal beauty and melodic complexity.

This iconic composition has become a jazz standard, inviting numerous artists to explore its depths and offer their own unique interpretations.

From Hancock’s own later versions to captivating covers by artists like Gretchen Parlato, Robert Glasper, and Darryl Reeves, each rendition of “Butterfly” tells a distinct story.

This article delves into these diverse covers, examining how each artist reimagines this timeless piece while retaining its captivating essence.

Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly”, Thrust (1974)

Herbie Hancock‘s “Butterfly” from his seminal 1974 album Thrust is a quintessential example of jazz-fusion brilliance. This composition elegantly fuses complex jazz harmonies with a driving funk groove, a hallmark of Hancock’s work during this era. Hancock’s use of the Fender Rhodes electric piano creates a lush, fluid foundation, with a serene opening that evokes the fluttering grace of a butterfly. Paul Jackson‘s bassline adds a deep, funky counterpoint to the lightness of the Rhodes, establishing a dynamic rhythmic interplay that is both compelling and soothing.

Bill Summers‘ percussion and Mike Clark‘s drumming further enrich the rhythmic landscape. “Butterfly” notably eschews the traditional head-solo-head format of jazz, instead featuring a through-composed form that evolves gradually. Each instrument adds layers of texture and rhythm, building a complex tapestry of sound.

Herbie Hancock’s innovative approach on “Butterfly” was truly groundbreaking. He pushed the boundaries of jazz while infusing it with elements of R&B and soul. This track became foundational to the jazz-fusion genre. It is celebrated for its technical excellence, innovative sound, and its power to evoke emotion and transport listeners to a state of reflective tranquility.

Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly”, Dis is da Drum (1994)

Two decades after its first appearance on Thrust, Herbie Hancock revisits “Butterfly” on Dis is da Drum, this time filtering it through the lens of 1990s acid jazz. Gone is the ethereal Fender Rhodes; instead, the track opens with a pulsating, electronic synth line. The bassline is updated with a more pronounced hip-hop flavor, while the drumming features crisp breakbeats establishing a danceable groove.

This iteration of “Butterfly” focuses heavily on rhythmic exploration, showcasing the intricate interplay of programmed drum patterns, live percussion, and samples. Hancock retains the core melody, although fragmented and interwoven within the updated rhythmic fabric. Rather than a feature, snatches of saxophone and trumpet appear as additional textures within the mix.

Key Points:

  • Instrumentation: Synths, electronic and live percussion, drum programming, bass, sampled horns.
  • Style: Acid jazz with hip-hop and electronic influences.
  • Focus: Complex rhythmic textures and a driving, dance-infused groove. The melody is present but less central compared to the original.
  • Compared to Previous Versions: A radical departure in feel and instrumentation. This “Butterfly” is less about atmospheric beauty and more focused on energetic, percussive exploration.


Hancock’s 1994 “Butterfly” demonstrates his continued willingness to embrace contemporary musical trends. This version showcases the song’s adaptability and his own innovative spirit, proving that even well-known pieces can be continually reimagined and given new life.

Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly”, Flood (1975)

Recorded live in Tokyo, the version of “Butterfly” found on Herbie Hancock’s 1975 album Flood captures the raw energy and improvisational spirit of his legendary Headhunters band. Gone is some of the studio polish of Thrust; this version stretches out, allowing for extended solos and a looser, funkier feel.

The iconic Fender Rhodes sound is still present, but Hancock infuses his playing with more rhythmic drive and blues inflections. Bennie Maupin‘s saxophone (switching to soprano here) soars above the groove, his improvisations more soulful and anguished than on the studio recording. Paul Jackson‘s bass and Mike Clark‘s drumming lock into an even deeper groove, while Bill Summers‘ percussion adds layers of rhythmic intricacy.

Key Points

  • Instrumentation: Fender Rhodes electric piano, soprano saxophone, bass, drums, and percussion.
  • Style: Jazz-funk with a focus on extended improvisation and a heightened rhythmic intensity.
  • Focus: The interplay between Hancock’s keyboard explorations and Maupin’s emotive saxophone solos. The tight-knit groove laid down by the rhythm section provides a powerful foundation.
  • Compared to the Thrust Version: This version is longer, wilder, and leans more heavily into improvisation, demonstrating the band’s dynamic chemistry in a live setting.


Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly” on Flood provides a captivating snapshot of the Headhunters at their most uninhibited. This performance highlights the band’s ability to stretch out a composition, embrace a rawer sound, and engage in the exhilarating interplay of a live setting.

Norman Connors’ “Butterfly”, This is Your Life (1977)

Norman Connors, a jazz drummer and producer, offers a soulful, vocal-driven rendition of “Butterfly” on his 1977 album This Is Your Life. This version shifts the spotlight from intricate instrumental interplay to the power of the human voice. Eleanor Mills takes center stage as lead vocalist, her rich, emotive delivery soaring over the smooth R&B-infused arrangement.

Connors replaces the Fender Rhodes with warm strings and electric piano, creating a lush backdrop. The groove is firmly rooted in a soul/R&B feel, anchored by a steady bassline and smooth, syncopated drumming. A horn section adds bursts of energy, highlighting accents and reinforcing the melody.

Key Points

  • Instrumentation: Vocals, strings, electric piano, horns, bass, drums, and percussion.
  • Style: Soulful R&B with jazz influences.
  • Focus: The expressive vocals of Eleanor Mills, supported by a lush, emotive arrangement.
  • Compared to Hancock’s Versions: Radically different in instrumentation, mood, and emphasis. Connors’ “Butterfly” prioritizes soulful vocals and a classic R&B sensibility.


Norman Connors’ “Butterfly” demonstrates the song’s versatility and its potential to be adapted to different genres. His version emphasizes the melodic beauty and emotional depth of the composition, highlighting its appeal beyond the realm of jazz-fusion.

Gretchen Parlato’s “Butterfly”, Live Concert at Jazz Open Stuttgart (2010)

Gretchen Parlato‘s performance of “Butterfly” at Jazz Open Stuttgart unveils a breathtakingly intimate and minimalist reimagining of the song. With just her voice and a sparse accompaniment of Taylor Eigsti on keyboards, Alan Hampton on bass, and Mark Guiliana on drums, Parlato strips away the intricate layers of funk and fusion, instead revealing the delicate heart of the melody.

Parlato’s voice is the undeniable star, showcasing her extraordinary control and nuanced phrasing. She stretches notes into sighs, adding an aching vulnerability to the song. The upright bass, played with gentle rhythmic pulse, acts as a subtle heartbeat, while tasteful percussion adds color and texture. The performance takes on an almost improvisational feel, with Parlato freely exploring the melodic contours.

Key Points:

  • Instrumentation: Vocals, keyboards, upright bass, and percussion.
  • Style: Intimate, minimalist vocal jazz with world music influences evident in the percussion.
  • Focus: Gretchen Parlato’s expressive vocals and the delicate accompaniment create an almost fragile atmosphere.
  • Compared to Other Versions: Parlato’s stands out for its stark intimacy. It’s less about groove or instrumental virtuosity and more about pure emotion and the beauty of the melody itself.


Gretchen Parlato’s live “Butterfly” showcases both her ability to reinterpret jazz standards and the inherent power of the composition itself. This version proves that even stripped to its absolute essence, the song retains a haunting, evocative power.

Robert Glasper’s “Butterfly”, Double Booked (2009)

Robert Glasper‘s “Butterfly” offers a soulful, introspective take on the composition within the context of his neo-soul infused album Double Booked. Eschewing the driving funk of Hancock’s original, Glasper reimagines the melody with a slower tempo and a greater focus on atmospheric textures.

Glasper’s Fender Rhodes lays the foundation with lush, sustained chords that provide a sense of warmth and melancholy. Casey Benjamin‘s (RIP) saxophone (sometimes treated with vocoder effects) delivers a plaintive interpretation of the core melody. The rhythm section, anchored by Derrick Hodge on bass and Chris Dave on drums, maintains a laid-back pulse with subtle hip-hop inflections.

Key Points

  • Instrumentation: Fender Rhodes, saxophone (sometimes with vocoder effects), bass, and drums.
  • Style: Neo-soul with subtle hip-hop and jazz fusion elements.
  • Focus: Atmospheric textures, emotive saxophone, and a laid-back yet sophisticated rhythmic groove.
  • Compared to Hancock’s Versions: A significant shift in tempo and mood. Glasper’s version emphasizes introspection and soulfulness.


Robert Glasper’s “Butterfly” highlights his ability to blend genres and infuse classic compositions with a contemporary sensibility. His version showcases the song’s inherent beauty while imbuing it with the introspective nature characteristic of neo-soul.

Conrad Herwig’s “Butterfly”, The Latin Side of Herbie Hancock (2010)

Conrad Herwig‘s “Butterfly” on The Latin Side of Herbie Hancock (2010) takes a vibrant detour from the song’s established styles. Instead of jazz-funk or soulful interpretations, Herwig infuses the composition with the infectious energy of salsa. This version injects a whole new layer of rhythmic complexity and a distinctly Latin flavor.

The core melody of “Butterfly” remains recognizable, but it’s playfully tossed between Herwig’s trumpet and Eddie Palmieri‘s second piano, creating a call-and-response dialogue. The driving force behind the track comes from the rhythm section. A relentless clave pattern established by the percussion (likely featuring bongos and congas) keeps the energy high. The bass line, likely played as a montuno pattern, lays down a foundation brimming with Latin groove.

Key Points:

  • Instrumentation: Trumpet, piano (x2), bass, percussion (likely congas and bongos).
  • Style: Salsa with clear jazz influences in the solo sections.
  • Focus: The interplay between Herwig and Palmieri’s melodies, propulsive Latin rhythms, and overall festive energy.
  • Compared to Other Versions: A dramatic departure from both Hancock’s original and other interpretations. This version prioritizes dancefloor energy and celebrates the song’s adaptability to diverse musical styles.


Conrad Herwig’s “Butterfly” demonstrates the remarkable versatility of the composition. By transforming it into a salsa number, Herwig not only highlights the song’s rhythmic potential but also pays homage to the deep connection between jazz and Latin music. This reimagining broadens the song’s appeal and showcases its ability to transcend genre boundaries.

Darryl Reeves’ “Butterfly”, The Herbie Sessions (2013)

In 2013, Darryl Reeves released “Butterfly” on his album The Herbie Sessions, an homage that threads through the expansive, innovative landscape of Herbie Hancock‘s compositions. Reeves, a saxophonist known for his robust and modern approach to jazz, reinterprets Hancock’s serene and complex piece with a vibrant, contemporary flair.

Reeves’ version of “Butterfly” starts with an introspective and smooth introduction, setting a laid-back groove that nods to the original’s airy and floating vibes but with a fresher, crispier sound. The saxophone takes the lead, weaving through the arrangement with precision and soulfulness that pay respect to Hancock’s genius while showcasing Reeves’ own technical prowess.

As the track progresses, Reeves introduces subtle yet impactful variations. The interplay between the saxophone and the rhythm section is tight and fluid, showcasing a stellar understanding of the fusion genre that Hancock helped popularize. The bass lines are inventive and the drumming is both lush and punctuating, providing a solid backbone to Reeves’ explorative sax melodies.

Throughout the piece, Reeves manages to maintain the ethereal quality of the original “Butterfly” while infusing it with his distinctive spirit. His version does more than just cover; it dialogues with Hancock’s original, creating a rich, textural soundscape that is both a tribute and a standalone masterpiece in modern jazz.

In conclusion, Darryl Reeves’ “Butterfly” from The Herbie Sessions is a compelling reinterpretation that captures the essence of Herbie Hancock’s original while expanding it into new realms. It stands as a testament to Reeves’ mastery and understanding of jazz’s potential for continual reinvention and innovation.


Herbie Hancock‘s genius lies not only in his initial creation of “Butterfly” but in the fertile ground it provides for continued artistic exploration.

The covers explored in this article showcase how Hancock’s compositional brilliance continues to inspire musicians decades later.

His legacy is not merely in a single, perfect iteration of “Butterfly”, but in its enduring ability to spark creative responses.

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