The album is pseudo- conceptual, in the sense that the titles of each song are kind of tropical sounding. The One Finger Snap is a dance done by the local tribe, in Oliloqui Valley, on Cantaloupe Island (digression: Hancock must like fruit considering two of his most popular tunes are Watermelon Man and Cantaloupe Island), and somewhere there is an egg. In no way do I really buy into it, but the music kind of has an almost exotic feel, at least to me, in a non-traditional way.
I often look at jazz from a classical type of view, just because I’m more classically trained, so I view each tune from a compositional standpoint, and there is nothing I can find wrong with any of them. The “head” to One Finger Snap is really just a few bars, and then the rest is improvised. That’s genius. Each section of the tune is divided by the “head”, a very unconventional form. And it just drives. Oliloqui Valley starts with such a cool bass groove that there is no way it could suck. Cantaloupe Island is one of my favorite songs, just period. So simple, and so funky, with an ill piano ostinato. The melody is so free it might as well have been improvised. The Egg is pretty much a free tune with a groove. If one tune had to be the odd-one-out, it would be this one, but in no way is it not good. There is some really great interplay between the piano and trumpet, which I really dig. There are also some really cool colors in the middle section when Ron Carter starts playing bass with the bow, a not-so-common thing in jazz. Usually I’m not a big fan of talking about color in jazz, there usually isn’t much, of course that is coming from the guy who loves great orchestral colorists like Strauss, and Berlioz, but there are some actually cool sounds in The Egg.
Throughout the solos are awesome, and of course that’s to be expected with such a high caliber group. Also the sound of the album is great. A lot of jazz albums don’t sound so great as far as sound quality goes, but Empyrean Isles just sounds really good, and this was in 1964. This, as far as sound quality goes, sounds better than some of the Beatles stuff of the same period (Hard Days Night).
In conclusion: If i’m ever stuck on cantaloupe island, I know what album I’ll be bringing with me.