Tuesday, April 18, 2006

what's in a name?

After the great discussion of Miles's electric music stirred up by his HOF induction, I think Herbie Hancock's quite different, but no less energising, efforts merit some attention, too. I remember that when I bought Herbie Hancock's "Mwandishi," it was with some anxiety: if it sucked, I'd be forced to take it personally, seeing how close the band's name was to mine. Of course, it didn't (and still doesn't) suck, in fact it's very good. The later "Sextant" is mind-blowing.

"Mwandishi" could be seen as a post-"Bitches Brew" recasting of "Filles de Kilimandjaro"/"Waterbabies"-era Second Quintet. Billy Hart's drumming draws a bit from funk, but even more from Tony Williams's sense of space and fractured rhythm. Thus, there's a fruitful tension between openess and steady groove.

"Sextant," though, is the true killer. From the first moments of "Rain Dance," when Eddie Henderson's backward-looking trumpet is injected into a watery jungle of synthetic blips and bleeps, the realms of possibility suddenly expand and these new territories are explored. For example, the idea of the soloist as being in the foreground is radically abandoned - arguably more so even than in collectivist free jazz. Rather, he becomes another element of texture, which is now the key ingredient keeping repetition from tipping over into monotony. Hancock wisely varies keyboard sounds, even breaking out a bit of old-fashioned piano, and even hints at Stevie Wonder when a clavinet riff interlocks with another keyboard. I wonder if this was recorded before or after "Superstition." The old idea of the heroic soloist even seems to be mocked in "Hornets," with a kazoo-like solo evoking the titular flying insects. Indeed, this is one reason why I prefer the Mwandishi band to the Headhunters: great as that "Chameleon" riff is, I don't need to hear 7 minutes of bombastic synth soloing on top of it.

"Hidden Shadows" sounds like proto-Wu Tang: blaxpoitation soundtrack with a touch of kung-fu thrown in. Even the title is Wu Tang-y.

The music's flow is more organised than Miles's brand of "fusion" was: beyond the brief motifs that serve as rallying points and the bass-riff-as-melody, the continuous morphing and contrasting seem indicative of a more composerly hand at the till. Most important of all, though, is the pervasive feeling of wide open possibilities, of old things being remade and new ones being uncovered. The labels that are now used to hastily discuss this music - jazz-rock, jazz-funk, fusion - obscure its revolutionary reality and tend to play up the commercial sell-out put-down. Tell me where the facile rock or funk appropriations are: there's a thoroughly avant-garde spirit here. It's jazz continuing to bend "pop" to its own will and needs.

Finally, a mention of Benny Maupin. He's rarely cited, but his bass clarinet work is a central sound, especially for its textural possibilities, in the Mwandishi and Headhunters bands, on "Bitches Brew," but also in very different contexts such as Andrew Hill's "Lift Every Voice," where he also plays some good tenor.