Speak Like a Child: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Like ”I Have a Dream,” Herbie Hancock brought “Speak Like a Child” to the Miles Davis Quintet, unfortunately without ever recording a finished take. The rehearsals of this tune have been released on the collection The Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-1968: The Complete Columbia Studio Takes. The rehearsal version is an interesting window into the birth of “Speak Like a Child,” giving listeners a view of how Herbie Hancock’s approach to this tune would change. On this rehearsal version, Herbie is joined by Ron Carter on the bass, Tony Williams on drums, and a bit of Wayne Shorter’s sax in the intro (more from the rhythm section later…).

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After counting off the tune, Hancock, Carter, and Williams start off a relaxed groove that is joined shortly afterwards by Shorter, blowing an easy melody line over Williams’ ride cymbal keeping time while Hancock punctuates this with piano chords and Carter’s bass gives both the harmonic foundation and a very melodic line itself. Around 1:30 in this version, it sounds like the group is a little disorganized as they feel out this tune. Hancock takes a minimal solo here until about 2:10, when there is a breakdown for a moment and someone whistles the melody. Apparently the tape runs out here and someone (Davis?) whispers “That’s all.” Kind of a spooky ending, actually. The basics of this tune are present in this early rehearsal version, but Hancock would later add to this tune, making big changes when it appeared on his own Speak Like a Child album.

On Hancock’s 1968 Speak Like a Child album, the title tune is the second track. On the album version, Hancock on piano is joined by Ron Carter on bass, Mickey Roker on drums, Jerry Dodgion on flute, Thad Jones on flugelhorn, and Peter Phillips on bass trombone. The album version of the tune starts with Hancock’s piano and Ron Carter’s bass over some bossa-style drums. The winds join at about 0:20 with the nicely orchestrated melody, complemented by Herbie’s piano improvising lightly in the back here. This has the feel of something off of Jobim’s Wave album here, very mellow, beautiful, melodic stuff. Around 2:00, the tune is in a nice two-chord vamp for Herbie’s light piano improvisation while Roker’s drums and Carter’s bass provide a steady foundation. At about 3:00 or so, the winds drop out for a trio section from Hancock, Carter, and Roker. Wow, check out those deep bass notes from Carter around 4:00-4:15 or so… Hancock’s piano soloing throughout this tune is very mellow, I keep returning to the similarity to something from Jobim – really not a feel that I associate with Herbie Hancock. At about 5:30, the winds return for the melody. As at the opening, Herbie lightly improvises underneath the winds. Nice flute work around 6:30, I like how that fades out while the rest of the band continues. At about 7:30, the song starts its fade while the band continues. Very beautiful, very mellow. As he did with “I Have a Dream,” Herbie has taken this tune from its beginnings with the Miles Davis Quintet to a well-orchestrated tune with the woodwinds adding a lot of color to his composition.

Almost 10 years after bringing “Speak Like a Child” to the Miles Davis Quintet and then recording the Speak Like a Child album, Herbie revisited the tune on his Trio ‘77 album with Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. There’s a decidedly less mellow feel on this version, partly because of the way this was recorded (Carter’s bass, in particular, is way up in the mix here) and partly because of how the trio approaches the tune. The opening of this version is not particularly busy, though Herbie’s piano is a bit more forceful than this trio approached the tune when they were a part of the Miles Davis Quintet. Williams’ drums are playing less of a straightforward bossa rhythm than Roker’s on the Speak Like a Child album version here, though there is still something of a bossa feel. The direct-recorded bass isn’t everyone’s favorite, and it’s not the best way to appreciate this trio’s playing, but I love the way Carter’s bass slides sound with this direct recording – check out around 1:45 or so. This tune is very much in jam session mode here, with Herbie soloing in a much less mellow way (and more prototypically Herbie Hancock-ish way) than on than on the album version of this tune. Another great bass slide around 3:30, I really love that sound that Carter was able to get here. Cool descending piano lines from about 4:00-4:20 or so… Carter’s bass just after 5:00 has another ear-catching line… At about 5:40, Hancock settles into an awesome groove – I’m not sure what this has to do with the “Speak Like a Child” melody, but whatever – this is ill, I’ll take it. That’s relatively short-lasting, though, breaking up around 6:20 or so. Shortly afterward, around 6:40, the trio settles into a nice groove again for a little while with some staccato piano chords moving around Carter’s bassline. There’s Carter’s bass again around 8:25-8:30, really working for me… and again from 9:15-9:30 or so, some great bass work from Ron Carter. There’s a great section from 10:00-10:30 or so, with excellent work from the whole trio… Herbie’s piano line at 11:15 or so is mind-boggling, and then his playing around 11:45, reminiscent of the descending lines around 4:00-4:20 somehow. Herbie is really on fire here, actually, just unbelievable stuff from 11:15 or so until around 12:30. Just before 13:00, they bring this version of “Speak Like a Child” to a close. This isn’t the definitive version of “Speak Like a Child,” and maybe isn’t the best example of Hancock/Carter/Williams trio playing, but there is some incredible stuff going on in here. Carter’s bass playing is excellent throughout this version, and Hancock has some really incredible piano lines in here as well.

One last piano trio version of “Speak Like a Child” from Herbie Hancock that I’ll mention here… this is a trio with Ron Carter on bass and Billy Cobham on drums, recorded in 1984. This version starts off in a mood that’s maybe closer to the Speak Like a Child album version than the Trio ‘77 version, despite the piano trio instrumentation here. Cobham’s drums are a bit slower than on the Trio ‘77 version above and somewhat more mellow, I think, than Williams’ drums on that version (maybe it’s just the way they were recorded, I’m not sure). The connection between Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock is amazing, even when there are no fireworks, they just seem to be on the same page. The intensity picks up somewhat around 2:30, when Herbie plays something that sounds similar to his playing on Trio ‘77… this triggers Cobham’s drums to pick up some steam, though the trio ebbs and flows, calming back down again by 3:45 or so. Again around 4:20, Herbie is playing a riff that reminds me a lot of what he was doing around 5:40 on the Trio ‘77 version, but the trio here works with this and the next minute or so is a great, start-stop thing. Wow! They continue along nicely here, grooving easily until Herbie takes off around 6:40 or so… the trio brings up the volume around 7:00, then brings it back down by about 7:20 for another calm section. They stay in this place for a little while, leading to some really interesting back-and-forth between Hancock and Carter, with some atmospheric percussion from Cobham’s toolbox. Herbie moves to lightly plucking the piano strings here and finding ways to use the piano as a percussion instrument, going back and forth with Cobham while Carter lays down a hypnotic bassline. This section sort of dissolves away, and Cobham, at least, seems to have been surprised at how that happened. Too bad we don’t get to see Hancock’s and Carter’s reactions to this version. This is an exciting listen, it seems like everyone is really going for it in this – a great piano trio version of “Speak Like a Child.” It seems like this piano trio version of the tune has taken some of the ideas from the Trio ‘77 version and really expanded on them to build something new. I should also mention that the Hancock/Carter/Williams trio took another swing at “Speak Like a Child” in their 1989 set at the Mt. Fuji Jazz Festival, though I won’t go into that version here.

An interesting trio version of “Speak Like a Child” is on the 1997 album Fingerpainting: The Music of Herbie Hancock, featuring Christian McBride on bass, Nicholas Payton on trumpet, and Mark Whitfield on guitar. This version starts out Whitfield’s guitar, solo, with a vaguely Spanish feel. At about 0:25, Whitfield plays the opening chords from “Speak Like a Child” and is joined by McBride’s bass, then Payton’s trumpet playing the melody. Payton’s trumpet tone is perfect in this setting, riding smoothly on top of Whitfield’s guitar chords and McBride’s bassline. At about 2:10, this moves into a guitar solo from Whitfield, backed just by McBride and Whitfield’s own guitar chords. This duet sounds very relaxed together, with McBride adding the bass foundation as well as some melodic lines of his own. Payton’s trumpet returns at around 3:30 for a fine solo. Nice bent notes around 4:55 or so, I like that sound. As they move back into the head, Payton’s trumpet re-states the melody, again floating on top of the guitar/bass combination. At about 6:20, Whitfield again plays a short bit of vaguely Spanish-sounding guitar and this signals the end. An interesting take on this tune, this drumless trio setting works well for the mellow feel of this version.

Another interesting take on “Speak Like a Child” with a change in instrumentation is from Ryo Kawasaki, who has put together a nice arrangement of this tune for solo guitar. This version has something of a Spanish feel at the opening – something about the way guitarists approach this tune, I guess. Kawasaki takes the introduction at a nice mellow pace, sounding very calm here. Around 2:45, though, the mood changes as Kawasaki digs into his strings. Not long afterward, though, this version has calmed back down to a more mellow affair. Kawasaki moves through this tune confidently, coming up with a version of “Speak Like a Child” that is well worth hearing. He conjures up a very full sound from his solo guitar here.

Kendrick Scott’s 2009 album Reverence, featuring Scott on drums along with Walter Smith III on sax, Mike Moreno on guitar, Gerald Clayton on keys, and Derrick Hodge on bass, featured this group’s version of “Speak Like a Child.” This version starts with an atmospheric guitar moan from Moreno and Scott’s cymbals before the rest of the band joins in the atmospherics. Beautiful opening, with Clayton on Rhodes piano and Moreno playing his guitar with what sounds like a reverse effect. Very mellow, in a very different way from the original version of this tune on Speak Like a Child, with Scott never playing anything resembling a bossa rhythm here. Somewhere around 1:30 or so, Moreno and Smith start a nice section with both of them playing melodic lines, Clayton’s Rhodes providing the chords to support this and occasionally interjecting with his own melodic ideas that Moreno and Smith respond to. Very good group interaction here, nice stuff. This interplay continues throughout the middle section of this version of the tune, with no individual player really stepping up front to solo, and the entire band instead creating this great group improvisation. Just after 4:00, Smith’s sax brings back the “Speak Like a Child” melody and then around 4:25, the whole band brings things way down to a feeling something like the opening of this version, warm Rhodes chords and Moreno’s reverse-effected guitar. A very strong, very original take on this tune, with excellent interplay among these musicians.

And one more piano trio version of this tune before we go… The Fred Hersch Trio, with Hersch on piano, Drew Gress on bass, and Tom Rainey on drums, performed “Speak Like a Child” on the 1994 album The Fred Hersch Trio Plays. Like the Kendrick Scott version above, the Fred Hersch trio takes this tune in a very mellow way without any of the bossa rhythms from Hancock’s original conception of the tune. Hersch plays some beautiful piano lines with great support from Gress and Rainey (though Rainey’s drums on this recording are a little bit overly reverb-y, to my ears). Hersch’s playing on this version definitely brings Bill Evans to mind, to give some flavor for this version. Nice interaction between Hersch and Rainey in particular around 3:00… Hersch’s piano line around 3:45 or so is also particularly nice. Around 5:45, the tune fades while the trio continues to play. The trio plays altogether excellently throughout this version. It’s a very pretty piano trio version of “Speak Like a Child,” beautiful playing from everyone here.

Following “Speak Like a Child” from its beginnings in rehearsals with the Miles Davis Quintet through its various incarnations in trio settings with Herbie Hancock would be a great way to hear the tune grow and evolve over the decades. The versions of this tune by Christian McBride, Nicholas Payton, and Mark Whitfield, Ryo Kawasaki, Kendrick Scott, and Fred Hersch are just icing on the cake. Although some of the trio versions led by Herbie Hancock have shown that there is a possibility to pull some fire out of this tune, it is especially well-suited to a nice, mellow treatment, with or without the bossa feel on the original. Keep on listening.

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