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Herbie Hancock: Energy in the Environment

The legacy of Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi album

For a brief time in the early 1970s, Herbie Hancock went to a place he’d never been before and would never visit again. Having recorded some of the best post- and hard bop for Blue Note throughout the 1960s, followed by a tame groove-oriented set for his new label, Warner Bros., Hancock next unleashed the unanticipated, unprecedented Mwandishi. Much like Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, the experimental, rule-breaking Mwandishi-and two subsequent albums Hancock recorded with the same personnel-has come to be viewed as nothing less than a seismic shift in the way jazz musicians approached their craft.

By the time he disbanded the group in 1973 to record the massively successful, highly commercial Head Hunters, Hancock had succeeded in confounding fans and record company alike, inspiring generations of jazz musicians and establishing a reputation as an artist for whom repetition and expectation are anathema.

Recorded at the end of 1970 and released the following spring, Mwandishi sold far fewer copies than Head Hunters. But the impact of Mwandishi may ultimately have been greater than that of the platinum-selling funk juggernaut. Misunderstood and under-promoted at the time of its release, Mwandishi has only grown in stature over the ensuing four decades. “Mwandishi was a groundbreaking record,” says Robert Glasper, a contemporary keyboardist who, like Hancock, commingles elements of traditional jazz with cutting-edge sounds. “It let you know you could knock down doors and do what you want to do, and incorporate other kinds of music.”

“The music was very evolved,” agrees pianist Geri Allen, who has played in recent years with some of the musicians who created Mwandishi. “He was using very innovative ideas of composition and improvisation, laced together in a different way.”

Mwandishi marked a tipping point for Hancock, the place where his music opened up wide, shed conventional structures, embraced the emerging electronic instrumentation of the day and availed itself of the post-production possibilities afforded by the modern recording studio. Blessed with a rare musical and personal camaraderie despite coming together by pure happenstance, the newly formed Herbie Hancock Sextet-aided to an incalculable degree by producer David Rubinson and engineer Fred Catero-swallowed whole everything it encountered, from modal and avant-garde jazz to the revolutionary R&B/proto-funk of the era to what Rubinson dubs “the rock and roll way of thinking.” Filtered through the Afrocentric pride of the black liberation movement and what the New York Times, in its positive review of Mwandishi, called “the energy in the environment,” all of those elements were absorbed, reordered and fashioned into something previously unimagined.

The sextet-Hancock (Fender Rhodes electric piano), Dr. Eddie Henderson (trumpet and flugelhorn), Bennie (then spelled Benny) Maupin (bass clarinet, alto flute), Julian Priester (trombone), Buster Williams (bass) and Billy Hart (drums)-remained intact for three and a half years, during which time they recorded two other highly regarded albums under Hancock’s name, Crossings (Warner Bros.) and Sextant (Columbia). They also played together on other projects, both as a group and in various partial configurations. Although only known officially as the Herbie Hancock Sextet, they are often referred to as the Mwandishi Band, reinforcing the notion, perhaps, that their first recording together remains the one that defined their brief but prolific run.

Hancock, who once called Mwandishi his favorite among all of his works, still speaks of the recording with great fondness. “It was an important record for me because it was part of the process of my own growth,” he says. “People who were into that band were really into it; they still speak in glowing terms about hearing that band. They were diehards into the direction we were going. I had phenomenal experiences playing with that band: unbelievable excitement and discoveries and synchronicities, an explosion of music that happened with that band at the heights of creativity.”

Although Mwandishi, Hancock’s ninth overall album as a leader, seemed to come out of a void, it is easier to see in retrospect how Hancock and his crew arrived in that place at that time. Hancock, who turned 30 in April 1970, had already been a respected jazz innovator for nearly a decade. A Chicago-born prodigy raised on classical music, he began studying piano at 7 and performed Mozart with the Chicago Symphony four years later. Although he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, where he majored in electrical engineering (and left before completing his courses), his heart was in jazz by the time he reached his 20s, and he accepted an offer to join trumpeter Donald Byrd’s band.

Hancock signed his first record deal with Blue Note in 1962 and released his debut album, Takin’ Off. A track from that set of all-original compositions, “Watermelon Man,” was subsequently covered by the Cuban conguero Mongo Santamaria, becoming a Top 10 single in 1963 and creating enough of a buzz around Hancock that he was invited to join Miles Davis’ “second great quintet,” which also included Ron Carter (double bass), Tony Williams (drums) and Wayne Shorter (tenor saxophone).

Hancock contributed over the next five years to such Miles gems as E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Nefertiti and Filles de Kilimanjaro, while also releasing seven albums as a leader for Blue Note, among them the highly praised Empyrean Isles, Inventions and Dimensions and Maiden Voyage. He also dipped into the world of film soundtracks, composing and recording the music for Michelangelo Antonioni’s period classic Blow-Up, in 1966.

It was in December 1967, while working on a Davis session, that Hancock first laid his hands on an electric piano, a Wurlitzer, which he played on the track “Water on the Pond.” He didn’t abandon his acoustic instrument, but he continued to exhibit an abiding interest in developments in electronics and their potential uses within his music. His first recorded use of the Fender Rhodes electric piano, which would become Hancock’s first plugged-in keyboard of choice, came on the track “Stuff” on Davis’ Miles in the Sky LP in 1968.

That March, the same month that he recorded the horn-heavy, Gil Evans-influenced Speak Like a Child, Hancock departed the Miles quintet. A finale for Blue Note, The Prisoner, was recorded in April 1969: A statement on the civil rights movement and a tribute to the recently assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, it featured Buster Williams on bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums, plus Johnny Coles (flugelhorn), Garnett Brown (trombone), Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone) and several other horn players. Hancock took the core sextet from those sessions on the road that summer. A booking at the Newport Jazz Festival found them sharing a bill not only with fellow jazz artists but an assortment of rock, blues and R&B names-among them Led Zeppelin, B.B. King and Jeff Beck-in an attempt by promoter George Wein to boost ticket sales.

Jazz purists were aghast at the hybrid billing, but Hancock (like Miles Davis) was paying close attention to some of the non-jazz acts, particularly James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, whose popularity, he reasoned, could be his with a shift in musical direction-a direction in which he saw himself heading anyway, away from postbop conventions and into something he has described as “earthy and funky.” His chance arrived in the form of Bill Cosby, who recruited Hancock to compose music for an animated TV series, Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert. Cosby played the resultant music for Joe Smith, head of Warner Bros. Records, who signed Hancock to the label. The sextet visited Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio for several sessions in the fall of 1969, in order to rework the music for an album, self-produced by Hancock, that would come to be called Fat Albert Rotunda.

The record sold well, by jazz standards, which is to say it did not find its way to the general Billboard album chart but satisfied the label enough that it trusted Hancock to make an even more commercial album next time out. For Fat Albert Rotunda, Hancock had used roughly the same personnel that had cut The Prisoner, altering only the auxiliary players (non-credited musicians on Fat Albert included drummer Bernard Purdie, bassist Jerry Jemmott and saxophonist Joe Farrell). A more R&B-oriented recording than Hancock had made before, Fat Albert‘s success gave Hancock the confidence to continue moving in a direction that would give him a broader appeal. What was to come, however, was not what Warner Bros.-or, for that matter, Herbie Hancock-had expected.

The rest of this article appears in the September 2010 issue of JazzTimes. Originally Published