12/13/14 Cave a Vin New Haven CT 8pm
Nick Di Maria Quartet
12/19/14 Silvana NYC 6-8pm
Nick Di Maria Quartet
12/13/14 Cave a Vin New Haven CT 8pm
12/13/14 Cave a Vin New Haven CT 8pm
Nick Di Maria Quartet
12/19/14 Silvana NYC 6-8pm
Nick Di Maria Quartet
11/8/14 226 Windsor CT 8pm
Nick Di Maria Quartet
11/13/14 Westconn Coffeehouse WCSU Danbury CT 8pm
Nick Di Maria Quartet
11/15/14 Cave a Vin New Haven CT 8pm
Nick Di Maria Quartet
11/16/14 The Outer Space Hamden CT 5pm
The Outer Space Allstars
11/21/14 The Shrine NYC 6-8pm
10/11/14 Cave a Vin New Haven CT 8pm
Nick Di Maria Quartet
10/12/14 The Outer Space Hamden CT 5pm
Nick Di Maria Quartet
10/22/14 Tomi Jazz NYC 8pm
Nick Di Maria Quartet
9/5/14 Wheeler’s New Haven CT 8:30pm
Nick Di Maria Quartet
9/13/14 Cave a Vin New Haven CT 8pm
Nick Di Maria Quartet
9/27/14 Connecticut Science Center Hartford CT
Nick Di Maria Quartet
World War II changed not only the countries and governments of civilization, but also the human outlook and imagination. The war tore apart lands across the globe, and even through the very souls of the those who witnessed it first hand. Prior to the war, classical music was still governed by European composers. Primarily with German composers, and their ideas were based on a particular conception of how music should be written. The age of Modernism was becoming the predominant form of expression as atonality and total serialism was at the center of classical compositions. After the war, the experiences and visions of composers from Europe and the United States would contrast from each other. Although in the United States, Modernistic techniques would be heralded and initiated in works, new and different styles of music would emerge. One of the these styles was Minimalism, which would become a contemporary style of music in the United States. Composer Steve Reich said that traditional Modernists saw Minimalism as a threat to music, yet he thought it was, a “great leveler.” “The American experience had been different and demanded a different medium of expression.” Steve Reich was right to recognize and celebrate the fact that Minimalism was different, because it came from a different experience. American composers could not pretend they were European.
At the end of World War II, the world saw the west divided between the bombed out European continent and the prosperous beacon of the United States. Both lands gave way to two different experiences of life for the baby boomer generation. American musicians created a pro-American spirit that portrayed a self identity different from the Modernist European style, rich with its own sources, genres and themes. The rise of Minimalism would embrace this new identity through exciting, cerebral, and original compositions. Instead of the academics and elitists pushing the music, the counter culture would be the determining factor in the direction of new music. Steve Reich, along with other composers like Terry Riley and Philip Glass, embraced this perspective and directed music that was separated from Europe. These composers felt they could not emulate their European counterparts, nor did they want to, and thus sought to create music of their own.
Part I: America vs. Europe
“A wasteland, dominated by these maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everyone write this crazy, creepy music.” — Philip Glass
In order to understand the stance taken by Steve Reich and the other Minimalistic composers (and American composers of the same time for that matter), the history of Post War America and the European continent must be addressed.
After the war, Americans lived in an age of prosperity. Soldiers returned home, were educated and employed, and began to start families. The country saw the largest surge in births in its history; aptly named the Baby Boomer Generation. A status quo was created. The idea of a loving wife, kids, and a modest house in the suburbs gave way to the notion of the American Dream. It was an unwritten status that every American could, and should do right, making a place for themselves.
The rise of manufacturing, advertisement and commercialization created a society of want versus need. Neighbors competed for front lawn supremacy. Fast food chains, department stores and paved highways added to the growing American image. It was like nothing that had ever been seen.
Starting in the 1950’s television would dominate and become a focal point in the American household. Programming would keep Americans at home after dinner, and away from the night clubs that were packed wall to wall during the 1930’s and 40’s.
The post-war era of the United States created a cultural identity. American pride was strong. The world had been saved from tyranny through the hard work and unification of a people. Many felt that the idea of being American was a truly great thing.
This was the world the Minimalists grew up in.
Europe was far different after the war. After the Allied victory, much of the continent was in ruins. Once again people suffered as they suffered during the first world war. However, action was taken to avoid the mistakes that proceeded after the first war and support was given to those who needed it. America led that support and the people of Europe were able to rebuild. The United States became a beacon of prosperity overseas. A country of great power and wealth that would be idolized, imitated, and valued.
Part II: Music in America and the Impact of Jazz
“You couldn’t dance to ‘Ko-Ko;’ you had to sit back and listen as [Charlie] Parker scribbled lightening in the air.” –Amiri Baraka (Blues People 1963)
Since its inception, European classical form and aesthetic were the common practices of composers in the United States. From Charles Ives, to George Gershwin the insertion of either folk, nationalistic or popular music was the only aspect that separated it from the European style starting from the Romantic era through atonality. American composers studied abroad and continued to do so throughout the 20th century. It was only a matter of time before American composers urned for a true style of their own. From John Cage to Frank Zappa, Steve Reich to Miles Davis, American musicians and composers mastered the concepts of the European masters and applied their theories to the music they created. It was only a matter of time before they began to realize they could create their own American identity.
Morton Feldman in a very cynical stance on American composers noted:
“He starts out as a romantic, a budding genius overflowing with original ideas, or at least with ideas about originality. Then he goes off to a university and discovers that romanticism is defunct. He studies for six years at Princeton or Yale, learning about twelve-tone writing, total serialism, indeterminacy, and the rest. He goes to Darmstadt and samples the latest wares of the European avant-garde. “”He writes a piece occasionally and it is played occasionally. There is the possibility of a performance on the Gunther Schuller series. His pieces are well made. He is not without talent. The reviews aren’t bad. A few award..– this is the official musical life of America.” (The Rest is Noise p. 532)
Although Mr. Feldman’s stance is quite dramatic, I agree that it had to have felt true enough to motivate the minimalist composers to seek a new direction.
The different experience that Steve Reich mentioned was hugely related to the music that was happening in the United States at the time. For the first time movements in music were being created in the U.S. and exported elsewhere; the opposite of what had been the common practice prior. Through American popular music and with a melting pot culture, musicians shared and blended ideas and styles. This gave way to many genres that originated in America.
American popular music was bursting with creativity. “Jazz, blues, country, and gospel evolved into rhythm and blues, rock n’ roll, soul and funk.” “Hank Williams, crafted country songs of gem-like beauty; Ray Charles and James Brown fused gospel with blues sensuality; Chuck Berry let loose the stripped down anarchy of rock n’ roll; Elvis Presley repackaged rock for a huge youth public (Ross 518). The counter culture that emerged alongside these musical movements and their standards of thought and behavior encompassed the life of the composers as they entered their college years and continued through their lives. This was extremely obvious when Steve Reich worked in Terry Riley’s band as his piano player, when both were students in San Francisco. They collaborated on the use of static harmonic progressions, reminiscent of Modal Jazz similar to Miles Davis’s So What from the 1959 album Kind of Blue and its dreamlike slowness of the harmonic rhythm (Ross 519).
Jazz, and especially Bebop, had a very distinct effect on the Minimalist composers and the American experience. During the war, with large numbers of musicians serving in the armed forces, the size of the commercial jazz ensemble shrank severely. The music moved its focus away from pleasing the audience into dancing to artistic statements.
Starting with the Bebop movement, you see a breaking down of musical boundaries. According to Alex Ross: “The wall separating classical music from neighboring genres appeared ready to crumble, as it had momentarily in the twenties and thirties, when Copland and Gershwin, and Ellington crossed paths at Carnegie Hall.” (Ross 516) An example and poignant moment in jazz was Charlie Parker quoting The Rite of Spring in his solo on the classic: “Salt Peanuts.”
Bebop was not only a musical movement, but an identity. The Beboppers were proud of their music and saw themselves as serious artists and musicians. Trumpeter and Jazz educator Dizzy Gillespie said “We invented our own way of getting from one place to the next” (Ross p.519). It continued through out the 1950‘s and 60‘s. As Thelonious Monk stated: “You play what you want, and let the public pick up what you are doing” (Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: an Encyclopedia by: Todd Jenkins
Greenwood Press). This mentality would be prominent in the counter culture that produced Minimalism.
As stated before, Steve Reich and the Minimalist composers grew up with Jazz from an early age and it would effect their musical tastes and output: “Two sounds caught the ear of fourteen year old Steve Reich: the punch-drunk rhythm of the Rite of Spring and the blindsiding beat of Kenny Clarke (Ross p. 518). For Terry Riley, it was Bebop and ragtime piano. Philip Glass was an avid listener of jazz. The history of minimalism can’t be written without mention of jazz after World War II.
Modern Jazz borrowed and adapted classical music and in turn influenced these composers in their formidable years. Terry Riley literally played his compositions alongside famed trumpeter Chet Baker in the early 1960‘s. Improvising as an art form would be key to the aesthetics of composers like Reich and Riley. Much of minimalism depends on the collective whole working together. The intricate pieces of a song must fit together precisely in order for the piece to be fully actualized. Gunther Schuller wrote: “which holds that all musics are created equal, coexisting in a beautiful brotherhood of musics that complement and fructify each other “ (http://jazztimes.com/articles/20607-gunther-schuller-third-stream-from-the-source).
Modern Jazz musicians would be irresistible to the American classical composers who were as Ross put it: “looking for a way out of Schoenberg’s maze.”
Reich and his colleagues didn’t just one day protest European music and decide together they were going to do something new or different. It was a very gradual and detailed development. It began at the university level where Terry Riley and Steve Reich, along with John Cage, Pauline Oliveros were formally or many times, as in Cage’s case, informally students of leading composers like La Monte Young, Edgard Varese, Henry Cowell; also, Arnold Schoenberg. (Holmes)
During their college years, the classical avant-garde was in full swing. Composers were taking pilgrimages to Darmstadt, Germany to consult with Karl Stockhausen and in Paris, France with Pierre Scheafer. The modernistic approach to music with electronic experimentation was a direct pathway to minimalism. For example the application of total serialism was applied in conjunction with electronic experimentation, music concrete and tape loops. The adventurous along with the forms of the past. (Holmes).
PART III: European Modernism and John Cage
“There is, thank God, a large segment of our population that never heard of J.S. Bach.” -Harry Partch (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/sep/25/the-mash-of-myriad-sounds/?pagination=false)
Post war Europe was a laboratory. Full of academically inspired composers who drafted compositions that were at times, scientific in process. Electronic innovations led to experimentation that influenced many composers. Historians mark the advent of The Modernist movement in music started after World War I and continued through out the century. Many historians argue what years exactly the movement occurred, others simply label the movement as a mindset that a composer have: “In music, the term “modernism” refers generally to the period of change and development in musical language that occurred at or around the turn of the 20th century, a period of diverse reactions in challenging and reinterpreting older categories of music, innovations that lead to new ways of organizing and approaching harmonic, melodic, sonic, and rhythmic aspects of music, and changes in aesthetic world views in close relation to the larger identifiable period of modernism in the arts of the time” (Metzer, David Joel. 2009. Musical Modernism at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century. Music in the Twentieth Century 26. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press). However, popular music and counter culture that thrived in the United States would be separated from the academic mindset of European composers. The work of jazz artists Coltrane, Monk and Davis, would not effect music on the European continent, nor would Elvis, Chuck Berry or James Brown.
The Modernist approached looked to older forms of music such as structure, narrative, melodic and rhythmic development and applied or advanced those previous writing styles to newer works. Such is the case with Schoenberg’s serialist music that he developed and applied through the rest of his life.
Total serialism, is the idea of using predetermined notes known as tone rows, harmonies, and rhythms in the creation of a composition, soon the status quo of classical music. The Darmstadt school as it was known, is seen in the work of Olivier Messiaen’s Mode de valeus et d’intensites, written in 1950. In his piece, he created divisions for each chromatic note, dynamic markings and articulations. The piece is remarkable in its systematic aesthetic. [Each division] “containing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, each represented once. In the score each division has a staff to itself” (Oxford 412) Pierre Boulez continued this idea of divisions with his work Structures Ia in 1951 Messiaen’s music advanced the serial concepts of Arnold Schoenberg and reflects the sounds of Medieval music and as most of his music, was influenced by his deep religious convictions. Messiaen later served as a mentor to other post war composers in Europe in the Darmstadt school.
Soon after, a 24 year old student composer of Messiaen’s would continue in the serialist style and push it even further in the European way, Karlheinz Stockhausen. The composer studied in Germany and France and worked with other Modernist composers. He experimented with electronic music techniques such as tape loops and voltage oscillation. Although his music would be presented in nontraditional ensembles or lack of an organized ensemble altogether, like in with prerecorded tape, his compositions were in the style of his European mentors. “Stockhausen’s approach to composing [Studie I] is a good example of the application of serial technique to the tape composition and also illustrates the discipline shown by classically trained composers in creating music… (Holmes 63).
Stockhausen became a figurehead and authority on the electronic classical music scene through out the 50’s and into the 60’s. American composers traveled to discuss music with him (and few received any honest or welcoming attention from the composer). Stockhausen, an elder of the minimalists, did not experience the lifestyle of popular music bombarding the music he was seriously studying and what was on the radio. His music is very different from the Americans’. Unlike his counterparts, after class he did not sneak off in the night in search of jazz or rock n’ roll in a club. He would influence both classical and popular artists, but in turn not from younger composers.
The composer who connected the two continents during the post war era was John Cage. Cage dabbled, experimented, sought and strived in almost every musical technique conducted in the 20th century. During the 1950‘s he visited Europe to learn for himself what Modernist composers were creating first hand, especially on the more experimental level. He is known as a chaotic composer, one who used noises as a means of arguing new music. He incorporated African musical concepts and worked with Chance Operations. His on the cuff attitude and use of improvisation in performances would echo with the minimalists that came up after him. Presently his music is still debated with strong opinions about his work heavily divided between artistic to absurd. He was however, quite the opposite and added to the experience of the young American composers. “Although some of Cage’s music might certainly be described as lacking conventional musical structure and harmony, much of the composer’s music for conventional instruments is much the opposite. The bottom line is that composing by chance operations doesn’t necessarily imply that the outcome is chaotic (Holmes 87).
Cage was an elder to Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and other American composers after the war, through his west coast studies with Henry Cowell, took his knowledge east where his influence spread. His compositions in magnetic tape and experiments with musique concrete for instance, served as a palette for the younger musicians to explore. He hovered over the “radical end of of American music as a liberating spirit” according to Alex Ross, and was once quoted as saying “Beethoven was wrong!!” at a lecture in 1952. Cage took what he had learned from classical composition and sought a new direction. Steve Reich’s magnetic tape composition Its Gonna Rain is reminiscent of Cage’s work, The Roaratorio and Fontana Mix. John Cage bridged the European and the American.
PART IV: Minimalism
“To be a tonal composer in the 60’s and 70’s was a deeply dispiriting experience. One was shunned as the last teenaged virgin.”–William Mayer (Ross 533)
Minimalism began in the underground music scene of New York City’s downtown lofts and the clubs of San Francisco. Based on consonant harmony and the repetition and development of short motivic devices and/or phrases, the music became very popular amongst composers and experimentalists.
Minimalism is said to have started with composer La Monte Young who credits growing up in the dairy lands of Idaho as the source for his spaciousness in his music. He listened to bebop and twelve tone music (which Gunther Schuller liked to say “often sounded the same”) (Ross 536). He dissected the tone rows of Webern, a student of Schoenberg, and saw connections between the notes. Young extended the notes of the rows into long tones as he put it. He wrote and experimented with drone-based sounds through out the 60’s. He joined the counter culture movement, interacting with artists like Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono. He included eastern philosophy such as Tai Chi into his composing techniques; he even experimented with drugs.
Terry Riley met Young in 1958 and was introduced to the older composer’s teachings. “What La Monte introduced me to was this concept of not having to press ahead to create interest,” said Riley (Ross 539). This was part of the experience Reich was referring to. Riley experimented with marijuana and LSD along with the compositional techniques with tape loops by Cage and Stockhausen. His first tape piece was named Mescalin Mix.
Riley’s work continued with the experimentation and integration of drones, loops and improvisation. He was attracted to hippie culture, and attracted throngs of tie-dyed fans with all-night improvisations on electronically enhanced saxophone and organ (Ross 541). His most famous work, In C, is held together by two pulsing high C’s played on the piano. It consists of 53 short, musical phrases played at the discretion of the performers (in a Cagian style) in a particular order. In true hippie attitude the pulse (eighth note C’s) is maintained by “a beautiful girl,” noted in the score, and has no specific duration. The most separating aspect of the piece from the European style is the focus on E, the major third of the C major chord, again the focus on diatonic harmony.
If Terry Riley was the west coast hippie of minimalism, Steve Reich was the New York street version. He grew up between living in New York and California while his mother pursued an acting career. “If I had been in Europe during this period, I would have rode on very different trains,” he once said (Ross 541).
Reich was a teenager in the 1950’s and listened to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring along with the Bebop records of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. In college, he was attracted to Modernist Lucian Berio and the serialist method. However, tonality kept slipping into his compositions where Berio said “If you want to write tonal music, why don’t you write tonal music?” (Ross 542)He was influenced by fellow minimalists and his early compositions were experimental. His first major work It’s Gonna Rain is a result of tape looping and echo effect. Reich’s early forays into composition involved experimentation with twelve-tone composition, but he found the rhythmic aspects of the twelve-tone series more interesting than the melodic aspects (http://www.oliviermessiaen.org/malcolmball/reich.htm).
Outside of his college studies he spent time and performed with other, similarly thinking musicians and eventually decided to leave the academic life for the counter culture one. He didn’t quite accept the psychedelic lifestyle of his collaborators and moved back to New York. The events of the 1960‘s would always be prevalent in his tone. Like many Americans, the turbulent decade wore at him.
On the east coast he continued to experiment with the phasing that he learned with tape looping. He was influenced by John Cage’s openminded approach to musical opportunities. His piece It’s Gonna Rain relied on the phasing effect that was created by the tape loop; in the mid 60‘s he wanted to apply that to instrumental music. He assembled a performing group for his music that acted more like a jazz group than a classical ensemble. “I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music.” The result would be a blend of modal jazz, psychedelic trance, rage of protest music and the sexy bounce of rock n’ roll (Ross 545).
Steve Reich said: “Since the Schoenberg revolution began, audiences has been pleading for contemporary composers to return to plain old major and minor chords” (Ross 547). The post war era created a whole different environment for American composers and their music is a conscience proof of their rejection of European styles. For years American composers sought to create an original style of music and be accepted as serious classical composers. It took the effort of protesting the very academic school of thought and embrace the rebellious counter culture. American musicians grew up listening to American popular music, the domestic history happening before their eyes and the need to experiment freely. The advent of the underground music scene, similar to its rock and jazz contemporaries helped the experimentation grow. Steve Reich, along with his cohorts, were correct to protest a style that did not reflect their own experience. In music, composers and players will often find a reactionary movement threatening. In most cases, with out rebellion, change and progress can not occur.
Metzer, David Joel. 2009. Musical Modernism at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century. Music in the Twentieth Century 26. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press
Oxford Anthology of Western Music. Volume III Oxford Press. New York. Print 2013
Baraka, Amiri, Blues People 1963
Ross, Alex. The Rest is Noise. Picador. New York. Print 2007
Holmes, Thom, Electronic and Experimental Music. Third Edition. Routledge. New York. Print 2002
Woody Shaw never ceases to torment my thoughts.
He’s an enigmatic player, who changed the way the trumpet can be played. I’m always interested in his solos, but because of his complex, angular style, I tend to get over whelmed, throw my hands up in the air, and cry out in pain.
Here’s the deal:
I’m drawn to Woody’s individualistic approach and attitude, his creative sensibility, and his take no prisoners energy. But, I don’t play like him. Shit, I don’t even hear music the way he does. I often call Woody’s style “Space Music.” Woody has been known to mention his application to improvisation based on the stylings of John Coltrane. Especially the execution of extreme intervallic movement and expansion of harmony. This, in short, creates large leaps that seem almost impossible on the trumpet. Not only do you need to have a strong theoretical understanding, you have to have the chops in order to do it.
So like most trumpet players, I tend to relate to Freddie Hubbard’s equally original, yet far more linear style to playing the trumpet.
I don’t know why it seems like you have to to devote to one style or the other, but I find myself conflicted with how much of each I should try to incorporate into my own playing. It’s puzzling when you think about, what little pieces of a player’s style you incorporate into your own.
In the mean time, I’m just going to turn the volume to 11, and enjoy this cat’s beautiful work.
Miles once said, “Everybody’s a thief.”
Herbie Hancock Mwandishi 1970-1973:
How abandoning his greatest band paved the way for music immortality
Pianist Herbie Hancock was at a crossroads by the fall of 1973. At that time he was a veteran band leader, and experienced the ups and downs of what that title meant for a jazz group in the 1970’s. It was an unique era in the music. Acoustic swing was combined with the back beats of rock and funk, while at the same time working jazz groups were adding other musical styles to the music. To play traditional bebop and still maintain a career was a constant struggle. Record companies and venues were consistently worried about profits and the endless money pit that was considered jazz at that time. Hancock found himself in the middle of burdening pressure to turn out hits from his record company while at the same time tried to pursue his musical aspirations, and keep his band on the road. His music wasn’t traditional jazz nor the new jazz fusion that was springing with new and exciting bands. His music was a combination of everything. His Mwandishi group, also known as his sextet, was blending nearly every style of music under the jazz lens. The band combined funk, rock, r&b, and free improvisation into the jazz sound, but he still struggled and had to make a choice. That choice was to abandon this great band all together and seek the commercial success he wanted, and especially what the record company wanted.
Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi ensemble was the pivotal band of his career. The six piece group only lasted 3 years, yet was at the apex of jazz in the 1970’s, both musically and culturally, and left one of the most significant footprints that still resonates to this day. Had it not been for a lack of record company support, finances, and a mainstream audience, Hancock would have continued on this path, furthering his experiments in the revolutionary music of the band. Instead he broke up the group, reassembled, and pursued a much more commercial sound that would advertently create the direction his music and image would go to this day.
Not much is written about Mwandishi, the Swahili word for author, and the name adopted by Hancock at the end of the 60’s. In fact to date there has only been one publication of the band and its music outside of a jazz magazine editorial or blurb. Most musicians don’t even know of the band’s existence due to the over shadowing of Hancock’s succeeding projects of the decade, but the few who do think of the band reverently and hold it as one of the greatest bands in the history of the music. “My dream was always to have a band, not one that sounded like Mwandishi, but one that, like Mwandishi, could somehow capture the elements of all different kinds of music, filtered though a jazz lens.” Christian McBride, bassist (Gluck)
There is a video of the Mwandishi sextet performing on a French TV broadcast from 1972. The band is divided between the rhythm section of Billy Hart (drums), Buster Williams (bass), and Hancock (piano/fender rhodes electric piano), facing the horn section of Eddie Henderson (trumpet/flugelhorn), Bennie Maupin (reeds), and Julian Priester (trombone), broadcasted in black & white, and clearly filmed to showcase their music. Only three songs were performed, Sleeping Giant, Toys and Water Torture, the first two by Hancock himself and the latter by Maupin, nevertheless were regularly performed compositions by the band at that time. From the footage that is accessible to the public (via the internet), the band is given no introduction, opening with a fade in as the band begins to play. Sleeping Giant is labeled at the first of the three songs and opens with a drum solo accompanied by all other members playing various percussion, including one of the only professional non-novel performances of a flexitone. As the solo builds, the rhythm section joins Hart on what looks like a cue from a sixth sense. Without warning Hancock and Williams join Hart on a down beat and begin the groove of the tune which is driving, funky and attention grabbing. The horn players continue to accompany for another few minutes while Williams lays down quarter notes, locking in the tempo. Hancock solos with a percussive edge, looking as though he is giving the fender rhodes a thrashing it hasn’t ever experienced. Then without warning Hancock slides up the keyboard with the back of his hand and the whole rhythm section plays a riff. This riff will actually connect each section of the 12 minute song as a musical motive to realign the band and give the listener something familiar to acknowledge.
From there a rubato section follows. Henderson’s muted trumpet sounds a cutting note grabbing the listener’s attention and reels them into the next point in this song’s journey. After a composed, unison line the band changes beat and provides the underlining for Priester’s trombone solo. The beginning sounds haunting with Priester giving a sense of plea with his lines. The rhythm section sounds chaotic when almost instantly they realign, accompany Priester with a syncopated and extremely driving funk beat. The kind of beat that would easily get an audience dancing in their seats. The section is over with the return of the original riff. Another rubato section enters with the return of the composed line from before the trombone solo. The unison line is played by the horns ending on a downbeat that literally destroys the time to a halt. The soprano saxophone enters nearly alone, plays a few notes and is joined by the band on the riff. A new, and even funkier beat provides the real estate for the saxophone solo. The rhythm section is remorseless with the rhythm and the other two horns are slamming away on their percussion. The band sounds as if they’re proclaiming the end of the world. The riff returns. The composed line follows again. As the band dwindles down to the end of the song, the credits air across the musicians faces with the title Jazz Harmonie. With a set up by drummer Billy Hart, the riff is played for the final time and the band ends their song.
In the twelve minutes the composition Sleeping Giant was performed, the entirety of jazz music up to that point in time had been delivered. The song encompasses all the styles, aesthetics and realizations that every jazz group over the last few decades had played. Funk, free form, improvisation, call & response, and written composition are all included in that segment. How can that music not be considered absolutely thrilling and worth bringing to the masses? What fell by the way side? Unfortunately the forces at be would not help.
Herbie Hancock was a child prodigy who grew up in Chicago. By his 12th birthday he had already performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, playing a Mozart piano concerto. As a teen he played piano regularly, and earned experienced playing in his home town’s jazz clubs. He eventually headed out to Grinnell College to study electrical engineering. The pull of jazz was too much and the young Hancock left college 1 semester shy of graduation to pursue music at the advice of trumpeter and boss Donald Byrd.
Once in New York Hancock was the regular pianist in the Donald Byrd/Pepper Adams Quintet and in the early sixties by way of Byrd, recorded on several of the trumpeter’s and other leaders’ albums, and eventually signed a record deal with Blue Note. It is important to note that in the Byrd/Adams band, he received tutelage in handling his musical finances, including copywriting his own music and compositions. Herbie was placed in the geographic center of Hard Bop under Byrd’s wing and made connections with some of the most notable jazz musicians on the scene. (Gluck 33)
By 1963, just around the time he became Miles Davis’s pianist, Hancock had the first taste of commercial success. His composition Watermelon Man was a jazz hit and received attention on the pop charts. Even more so when the band leader and congo player, Mongo Santamaria, released a version of the song that became a smash juke box hit. The money earned in royalties along with his 1965 master piece Maiden Voyage (featured in a car commercial) would directly fund the payroll and traveling expenses of the Mwandishi band down the line.
Herbie Hancock spent 1963-1968 in the piano chair of the Miles Davis band, becoming one of the integral members in the [Davis] Second Great Quintet. This unit pushed the boundaries of conventional jazz, due to the experimentations in form and soloing of Hancock and his bandmates. It was in the Davis band where Herbie would develop two essential traits to his playing that he applied to the Mwandishi sound.
Davis wanted to strip his songs of their harmonic structure and nurtured his young band to apply various substitutes in lieu of traditional chords. Here, Hancock applied chord clusters, groupings of harmonically unrelated. The tonality of the compositions became ambiguous and reflect what soloist was improvising. Hancock’s use of tone clusters would turn up in almost all of the Mwandishi songbook. Herbie’s interest in using tone clusters appears to be sonic and intuitive…they allowed the piano to be utilized as a percussion instrument. (Gluck 42-43)
Another abstract tools Hancock developed with the Davis band and used in Mwandishi was the use of rubato, becoming an often used music device with Hancock’s playing. Shifting concepts, sections themes, and solos could be connected by breaking down the time of a song to virtually nothing; time could be suspended as seen in the Sleeping Giant video. This device was used often when Herbie would branch off and record with other musicians on their recordings in the 1960’s and into the 70’s.
Finally, the use of sonic coloring. With the use of clusters and melodic lines in solo and accompaniment, coloring, along with untraditional methods of playing the keyboard, gave compositions extra texture. This technique became present in the avant garde jazz and other music of the 60’s. Hancock, being active in the avant garde movement, would develop his own skills and language. He furthered his skills when he eventually added the new Fender Rhodes electric piano to his arsenal along with Echoplex (an analog effect that used tape recording to create a delay effect) and later the use of early analog synthesizers.
The abstract concepts stated earlier but what completed the Mwandishi sound was the adaptation of playing in a funk style. There isn’t an official definition of funk, especially when it qa first being used, yet the music that adopt the name developed certain characteristics that have become associated with the style since. Hancock’s first major example of funk style could be found on the song Watermelon Man from 1963. A soulful, driving song that has a dance element to it. Hancock credits growing up in Chicago, and watching the watermelon merchants selling their fruit, and the vocal exchanges between producer and consumer as the inspiration of the composition. He wanted to reflect on his African American experiences growing up in the city. Its sister-song, Cantaloupe Island continued in the same style. Although now standards, both songs were not performed by Hancock until the disbanding of the Mwandishi group.
The characteristics of funk are:
Syncopated and driving rhythms
Use of riffs and focus on motives
A strong connection to R&B and Rock
A strong sense of Afro-American identity
All the concepts stated above are essential to know when categorizing the sound and identity of the music of the Mwandishi band. Each was executed through out the band’s tenure and became crucial tools in producing the music. The Mwandishi sextet was a gradual and natural development in the playing of Herbie Hancock, and their use was not interpreted in a way the record companies that recorded Hancock in the 1970’s could understand, resulting in the pressure to strive for a more commercial sound later on.
“When I told Miles Davis’s manager that I wanted to form my own group, he asked me ‘Who do you plan to have in your trio?’ When I told him that I planned to lead a sextet, he told me it was impossible for a group of that size to survive. Well, I kept a sextet together for 3 years until last week when we added a seventh member!” Herbie Hancock, Boston Jazz Workshop 1972 (Warner Bros.)
The origins of the sextet start in 1968. Newly married and departed from the Miles Davis band, Hancock set out to form his own group. That year he recorded Speak Like A Child for Blue Note Records, an album of original songs set in the Bop sound of the sixties with a focus on Hancock’s use of 3 horns. “[I]…have been thinking about more and more, Herbie answered, was the concept that there is a type of music in between jazz and rock.” (Hentoff, original liner notes, BST 84279)
The tunes are authentic and have an impressionistic color to them. Rooted in bop, but with an exploratory aspect. The LP featured original compositions with the addition of a lush, dark-timbred horn section consisting of flugelhorn, alto flute, and bass trombone. Immediately the ensemble’s sound was unconventional in its arrangements. Two compositions from the album would be Mwandishi standard material: Toys and Speak Like A Child. The original sextet Hancock would assemble premiered these compositions on the road including the Village Vanguard and Carnegie Hall in New York City. The New York Times reviewed the Carnegie performance: “The group had a tremendously spirited attack in which solo lines and ensembles slid into place, coalesced and erupted in a constant and colorful flow of development.” (Gluck 54)
Herbie Hancock kept pursuing his project and garnered the attention of Bill Cosby, by whose recommendation earned a record deal with Warner Bros. Records in 1969. Hancock under the hiring of Cosby, composed the score to the cartoon Hey! Hey! Hey! Here Come’s Fat Albert. The resulting album Fat Albert Rotunda was exactly what Warner Bros. wanted. A commercially accessible album, fused with the R&B sounds of the time sold moderately well, and earned Hancock the opportunity to record more for the label. Hancock begins to perfect his ‘funkier side‘ to playing and successfully sets the ground work for the sound he wants. The album’s music is riff and vamp based with call & response backgrounds set to syncopated beats from the rhythm section. Hancock explained to Bob Blumenthal in 1971: “I chose to record Fat albert Rotunda as my first album for the label…which gave me the freedom to do Mwandishi next.” (Gluck 60)
The Mwandishi sextet formed rather gradually. Only bassist Buster Williams was present in the early editions of the sextet dating to 1969 with the succeeding release of The Prisoner. The other members joined as most band members do through musician networking and recommendations. Trumpeter Eddie Henderson remembers: “My music had only one 8th note on the whole page! Herbie said the guy he needed knew where to put that note exactly.” (2006)
Each band member adopted Swahili names along with Hancock, who had found a new strong presence of African pride in his own identity. The band members followed and this shared identity became synonymous with the band’s presence.
Characteristically, the Mwandishi band displays, over the span of 3 years, the most diverse array of musical conceptualization. As the band played more and more, with the same line up, the music became so strong and well rehearsed that when listening to live recordings of the band, it seems as though the transitions are made through a psychic connection.
These characteristics include:
Suspension of time
Open or nonexistent harmonic structure
Syncopated, percussive and driving rhythms
Transitions and motivic cues
Odd or no time signatures
Vamps (ostinati) and riffs for compositional design
Rock bands at this time were no different in their use of riff based tunes or rubato like sections. Santana’s Soul Sacrifice is an example of soloing over a driving riff that repeats in ostinato fashion. Mwandishi members would improvise over several vamp sections in their music that created tension and release as the soloist carried out their lines. These musical moments would create excited statements in the performance and allowed the band to explore uncharted musical territory. “Our whole idea was to create something that was multi-textural, with multiple nuances so that it was like a moving tapestry of some sort. There were no restrictions…everyone was listening to each other, leaving our egos out of the process, just responding to what the overall group invents.” (Julian Priester, Gluck 147)
The band’s early repertoire consisted of Hancock’s compositions: Maiden Voyage, Toys, Speak Like A Child, Wiggle-Waggle (from Fat Albert), and Firewater (The Prisoner, written by Williams) and displayed the musical concepts mentioned prior in each performance. Sometimes these songs would last whole sets, spanning over an hour in length.
The sextet’s first major performances occurred at the Fillmore East/West. The venue’s owner Bill Graham, was interested in promoting jazz and programmed his concerts to feature jazz acts with rock bands. The Mwandishi band fit perfectly amongst the psychedelic rock groups of the era, and the band was receiving positive responses from their concerts. In today’s standards of music festivals, Mwandishi seemed to fit at the Fillmore just as comfortably as The Bad Plus would, at say, Bonnaroo.
It was common to see jazz acts play the same bill as their rock music counterparts. Miles Davis famously opened for the Steve Miller Band the nights he recorded his new project in 1970 at the Fillmore. Other bands included the Charles Lloyd Quartet, Return to Forever, Tony William’s Lifetime, etc. Hancock followed suit and his band was aimed at pop audiences. When David Rubinson entered the band as producer/co-manager, this business focus became more evident. The electric nature of the band suggested the potential of its marketing within the world of rock music. (Gluck 121)
However, the traditional jazz audience was divided concerning the new band’s sound. “He was getting some negative audience reaction when they’d play a jazz club, some of the new stuff. But when he played some of the rock clubs, that’s what they loved. There was that kind of positive feedback…the band was also playing in college towns where younger people came to listen and, often, to dance. (David Rubinson, Gluck 84)
The band and Hancock experienced this divided response at their two week engagement in Chicago. “We were booked for a dinner set, and a late night set. The dinner time audience was not really digging us, but the late set as I recall, it was standing room only.” (Eddie Henderson 2006) Music has always suffered from its progressive nature. When audiences aren’t familiar with what a musician is doing, it can cause negative back lash based on the ignorance of the listener and the inability to categorize it. As divided as the jazz audience was, the band continued and earned a strong, devoted audience.
In 1971, Hancock’s band released their first album titled, Mwandishi. Warner Bros. was keen on Hancock continuing to record a follow up to the moderately successful Fat Albert Rotunda and thus hired producer David Rubinson, who demonstrated success previously with projects across various record labels including WB and Columbia. Rubinson and Hancock developed a working relationship almost immediately, where as, Rubinson was interested in promoting jazz on the level of rock similarly to Bill Graham, and intended to support an artist create the art they were trying to make. (Gluck 90)
As Hancock moved away from the straight down the pike R&B sound that the record executives wanted, Rubinson became a spokesman for the band. Rubinson worked in every way possible to make Hancock’s music accessible to the masses.
Mwandishi has only 3 tracks to it, and still evoke some of the most original sounding jazz in the last 40 years. The band recorded two Hancock compositions and one by Pepo Mtoto(Priester) with the addition of Hancock’s newest instrument, the Fender Rhodes piano. The opening track, Ostinato: Suite for Angela, is an open form composition with no set melody except a riff set in 15/8 time. The song begins with a rubato section featuring the electric piano played through an echoplex. Eventually the riff is premiered and for 13 minutes, the band literally jams on the tune. Mganga (Henderson) displays a searching, exploring solo. The beat creates massive amounts of tension and builds to a keyboard solo. The trombone, bass clarinet, and bass share the riff throughout the song until a siren-like solo from Mwile (Maupin) takes it to the ‘outro’. The song is infectious, tribal and extremely danceable; a song for the next era in jazz music.
The rest of the album is equally invoking with long, extended jam like songs, but with more focus on composed sectional playing in between solo sections. The music still holds up, showing no sign of age or date compared to some of the jazz and fusion albums of the time.
Mwandishi opened at No. 16 on the Billboard’s top jazz chart and received overwhelming praise in the New York Times labeling it ‘genius’ and ‘dwelling in emotion and concept.’ James Litchenberg’s review also included [proof] “musicians could play directly off the patterns of emotions…Hancock has thrown the doors open to everyone.” Billboard offered a brief promotional review: “A broad appeal for this set because Hancock is a respected name for the rock crowd.” (Gluck 102-103)
Despite the praise of being labeled as one of the top 5 jazz recordings of 1971, Warner Bros. was deeply displeased with the release. The primarily white and older record executives did not get the music, could not identify with it, misunderstood it, and therefore shunned it for lacking commercial appeal.
Hancock’s sophomore release, Crossings, was recorded in 1972. Again, continuing in the same vein of composing and performing, Hancock recorded 3 more compositions: Sleeping Giant and two by Maupin, Water Torture and Quasar. The latter two compositions thrusted Hancock and the band into the next phase of their sound with the use of the Moog III synthesizer programmed by Dr. Patrick Gleeson. Eventually, Gleeson would be added as a 7th member of the band, and would go on the road performing for the Crossings tour.
Crossings is merely an extension and the next step in the sextet’s sound. The use of vamps, riffs and open improvisation, now with added synthesizer, is creative and just as powerful in its use of timbral color and sound as its predecessor.
However, the album was going to be a tough sell for David Rubinson to convince the record company that the album had merit. To Rubinson’s credit, to prepare the executives for Crossings, he played for them a tape of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, at that time the highest selling jazz album. They expressed that the music was “limited in commercial potential,” where as Rubinson rebutted with the commercial success the album had on the charts. Rubinson won and the album went to market, but would be doomed upon arrival.
Warner Bros. did not have the adequate promotional and marketing department to release a young black musician playing an original form of music. They were unaware, and could not fully grasp that the album should be exposed to the jazz and the rock/pop markets and problematically issued the release alongside easy listening and adult markets. In an April 1972 advertisement for Sam Goody, Crossings could be found next to Arlo Guthrie’s Hobo’s Lullaby and Randy Newman’s Sail Away. Jazz fans would not think to look, and fans of easy listening would not consider Herbie Hancock.
Despite the set back Crossings was being played in college radio stations, and recieving praise from the critics who heard it. Unfortunately, it did not earn the profits Warner Bros. wanted and very foolishly blamed the music instead of the marketing. As David Rubinson recalls it, “They were good enough to let [Hancock] leave the label. (Gluck 122)
Columbia Records was the next to take up Mwandishi under contract. With the success of Miles Davis’s fusion and other jazz-rock projects (mainly which featured Hancock on keyboards) the release of other successful fusion albums, and Rubinson’s history with the label, Columbia was interested in the potential the Mwandishi sextet could bring. The band continued to tour and perform at jazz clubs and rock venues over the succeeding year. The press were mixed; the conservative ‘jazz police’ camps were very unhappy with the direction away from traditional bop Hancock was going, while at the same time was praised for having the courage to pursue something new night after night from those more accepting. Downbeat Magazine labeled the band “stimulating.”
Sextant was the third and final release from the [now] septet. Staying true to their convictions and stylings they recorded three more compositions of open, grooved base songs. Studio effects along with synthesizers were used even more than on Crossings. The album is funky, provoking and most definitely’Mwandishi.’ The ensemble’s sound is filled out by delaying and reverb effects along with the oscillations of sound provided by the Moog. The album opened at number 14 on Billboard and rose to number 3 after sixteen weeks.
Even with all the successes despite the many hurdles, the band was having a hard time surviving on road. Hancock kept his band members on the payroll mainly through his royalty money from Watermelon Man, Maiden Voyage, and an early version of You’ll Know When You Get There which was featured in an airline commercial, but the accumulating debt was far too burdensome. “Herbie was in serious debt, and David Robinson became more interested in controlling the band. What [Rubinson] didn’t realize was that Herbie was only a figurehead, he all owned a piece of the music.” (Eddie Henderson 2014)
Hancock would total a debt of $30,000 to Rubinson by the middle of 1973; the ultimatum soon followed. Rubinson wanted Herbie to reassemble a new band, one that could be more marketable, pop, and lucrative for not only the record companies, but for Hancock himself. Rubinson never stopped believing in Hancock, but with the next album, it was obvious Rubinson wanted a new sound to bring to the table. Either fire the band, or pay back the money.
“Three weeks after our last performance in California, Herbie let the band go. Around that same time Head Hunters was released. He told us it was because he wanted to try something new for his art, but we knew it was because of the money.” (Henderson 2014)
Head Hunters was the commercial bombshell that it was intended to be. A jazz-funk album with all the impressionistic, open, ambient aspects Mwandishi had, stripped away. It consists of 4 groovy tunes (including a new arrangement of Watermelon Man) set to hard driving funk beats. The songs are sectional, but dwarf in comparison to their predecessors. Only Bennie Maupin remained as the sole horn player. The Swahili names were dropped, as Herbie Hancock was presented as a rock star. In it’s initial release Head Hunters reached No. 1 in the jazz charts, No. 2 in R&B, and No. 13 in Billboard Top 200. By 1992, it became the highest selling jazz album of all time.
Instead of blending all the styles of jazz into one band, Hancock started down the path of having multiple projects working alongside each other to fulfill his artistic endeavors that he continues to this day. Around the success of Head Hunters, Herbie formed the VSOP Quintet, and worked on various other projects including concerts with Chick Corea, Bennie Maupin’s Jewel in the Lotus, and Eddie Henderson’s Inside Out, and Realization. The era of his super stardom had begun.
Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi band will forever remain over shadowed in the world of music regardless of its musical originality. Often times in the art of music, the most central band is overlapped by its contemporaries for the need for monetary success. That was indeed the case for Herbie Hancock. In the present, audiences get a glimpse of the creative aura he encompassed in the early 1970’s. In between the crowd favorites and the pop collaborations, Hancock will throw in little nods of his playing that are reminiscent of the old band. Had he stayed the course, the world would have still gotten the master Herbie Hancock, but not the pop superstar that exists today.
Interviews with Eddie Henderson conducted in 2006 & 2014
You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandshi Band; Bob Gluck; The University of Chicago Press and London; 2012
Herbie Hancock: Energy in the Environment: The legacy of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi Album; Jeff Tamarkin; Jazz Times; September 2010
Mwandishi: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings [Liner Notes] Bob Blumenthal; 1994
Speak Like A Child [Liner Notes] Nat Hentoff; Blue Note Records BST 84279; 1968