The Prisoner is the seventh album by Herbie Hancock, his final on the Blue Note label, released and recorded in 1969. His next record would be on Warner Bros. Records. Hancock confessed in 1969 that he had been able to get closer to his real self with this album than on any other previous ones. He praised flute player Hubert Laws and his merits on the album, also pointing out that Laws was one of the finest flute players in classical or jazz music.
Just like his ambitious Speak Like a Child, The Prisoner stands as an example of "social statement written in music", a concept album with a thematic focus which has to do with Civil Rights and the struggle of the Afro-Americans trying to find their proper places in the US society. The title track wants to express "how black people have been imprisoned for a long time." The piece was first heard live in 1968, during a performance at University of California Jazz Festival. "Firewater" should represent 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" too is connected to King's life, since he "had to live in an atmosphere charged with intimidation". A rough arrangement of said piece was initially used as a jingle for a Silva Thins cigarette TV commercial. Ultimately, "Promise of the Sun" is a tune that symbolises "how the sun promises life and freedom to all living things, and yet blacks are not yet free."
All compositions by Herbie Hancock, except as indicated.
- "I Have a Dream" – 10:58
- "The Prisoner" – 7:57
- "Firewater" (Buster Williams) – 7:33
- "He Who Lives in Fear" – 6:51
- "Promise of the Sun" – 7:52
Bonus tracks on CD reissue:
- "The Prisoner" [Alternate Take] – 5:47
- "Firewater" [Alternate Take] – 8:38
Recorded on April 18 (#2, 4, 6), April 21 (#1) and April 23 (#3, 5, 7), 1969.
- Herbie Hancock — piano, electric piano
- Johnny Coles — flugelhorn
- Garnett Brown — trombone
- Joe Henderson — tenor saxophone, alto flute
- Buster Williams — bass
- Tootie Heath — drums
- Tony Studd — bass trombone (1, 2, 4)
- Jack Jeffers — bass trombone (3, 5)
- Hubert Laws — flute (1, 2, 4)
- Jerome Richardson — bass clarinet (1, 2, 4), flute (3, 5)
- Romeo Penque — bass clarinet (3, 5)