My original plans for this issue hadn’t called for Buster Williams and Eddie Henderson to be sharing feature space. But since fate dictated otherwise, it would be remiss of me not to mention an important anniversary for both musicians. It was 50 years ago—early March 1971—that the first album Williams and Henderson recorded together reached the ears of the world.
That disc was Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi, also featuring trombonist Julian Priester, bass clarinetist/flutist Bennie Maupin, and drummer Billy Hart. The so-called “Mwandishi sextet” would make two more albums together—Crossings (1972) and Sextant (1973)—and be largely responsible as well for Henderson’s first three albums: Realization (1973), Inside Out (1974), and Sunburst (1975). The prevailing mood of this music is spacy yet murky, celebratory yet ominous, both funky and free, seeming to take some cues from the electrified Miles Davis. But whereas Miles’ records owed much of their kaleidoscopic quality to producer Teo Macero’s edits and crossfades, the Mwandishi group achieved similar results through their own composing and arranging. It’s no accident that Mwandishi, the Swahili name Hancock adopted during this time, means “writer.”
The rest of the sextet also took on Swahili names. Williams was Mchezaji, meaning “sportsman,” someone who’s truly in the game, and you can hear that sense of serious play throughout these albums. Henderson, meanwhile, was Mganga or “doctor,” a man who can perform magic, and that’s eminently believable during his solos, many of which start out unassumingly conversational and soon become mesmerizing.
I recently listened to Mwandishi, Crossings, and Sextant in chronological order, one after another. And I thought: If we hadn’t decided on a one-album-per-decade limit for each artist in our 50th-anniversary issue’s Top 50 Jazz Albums of the Past 50 Years list, all three might well have joined Hancock’s Head Hunters in our 1970s Top 10. They aren’t as listener-friendly, to be sure, but they’re equally significant, influential, and beautiful. If you don’t know them, I recommend you give them a spin.