- Blue Note
The Prisoner is the seventh Herbie Hancock album, recorded and released in 1969 for the Blue Note label, his final project for the label before moving to Warner Bros. Records. It is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated the previous year. Hancock suggested at the time that he had been able to get closer to his real self with this music than on any other previous album.
Participating musicians include tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, trumpeter Johnny Coles (on flugelhorn), trombonist Garnett Brown, flautist Hubert Laws, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath. Hancock praised flute player Laws, suggesting that he was one of the finest flautists in classical or jazz music.
Like his ambitious Speak Like a Child, The Prisoner purports to stand as a "social statement written in music". The title track seeks to express "how black people have been imprisoned for a long time." The piece was first heard live in 1968, during a performance at the University of California Jazz Festival. "Firewater" represents 'the social duality of the oppressor and the oppressed: the fire symbolises the heat in violence and (abuse of) power, whilst the feeling of water recalls Martin Luther King. "He Who Lives in Fear" also alludes to King, since he "had to live in an atmosphere charged with intimidation".
Continuing the album's apparent theme, the "Promise of the Sun" symbolises "how the sun promises life and freedom to all living things, and yet blacks are not yet free."