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To those who see jazz as an African-American art form, Herbie Hancock is often considered the Miles Davis of his generation due to his status as a stylistic chameleon. Despite remaining a jazz pianist, in later years he played a part in launching funk (mid-1970s), disco (late-1970s), hip-hop (early 1980s) and rap musics, and, although not as dissolute a character as Davis ('the dark prince') was, he nearly became a casualty of the lifestyles that went with those commercial music movements despite his devotion to his family and (apparently) to Buddhism. Before becoming a funk star, however, and after several years as a tuxedoed jazz pianist of the 1960s, Hancock for a few years led the most interesting, as well as "far out", band of his career. This was a self-consciously "black power" band that focused on their African ancestry as a source of pride. This was reflected by the band's adoption of Swahili names, "Mchezaji" (Player), "Pep Mtoto" (Spirit Child), "Mwile" (Body of Good Health), "Mganga" (Doctor of Advice) and "Mwandishi" (Writer/Composer); the latter being the name Hancock adopted. This band was devoted to clean living (hence the St. Augustine as a pinnacle of civilisation sleeve picture) and turning black music into a high art. Their self-titled debut featured three lengthy suite type tracks, which presented jazz almost like some form of African chamber music with a will-o-the-wisp spirit to it; their third, "Sextant", focused on the idea of building pieces around a single note or riff (the idea some jazz musicians, beginning with that nutter Davis, had at the time to reflect the influence of rock music) but using electronica and odd-time signature beats to create a sense of structure. In between these two polarities came "Crossings", which is probably the most atmospheric of the three. This was the first to use synths/electronica (contributed by a white guest, Patrick Gleeson) as well as drum patterns that pointed in the direction of a simple rock beat, but retained the same suite-like sensibility of the debut. "Sleeping Giant", which takes up the first half of the album, is a great example here, going through several different phases while retaining the interest before, somewhat inappropriately, ending with a bit of a rave-up jam. The two tracks taking up the second half of the album, "Quasar" and "Water Torture" (both penned by the clarinettist in the band), are less effective as suites but retain the album's distinctive style of mixing African-American style jazz with synthesiser sounds one might associate more with acts like Tangerine Dream. Each of the three Mwandishi albums are different from each other and also different from almost anything else; that is their appeal, and it represented, to this music listener anyway, the most interesting thing Hancock ever did, even if it is still more enjoyable for me to hear him jamming on Cantaloupe Island (his early sixties hit) or some such number with Metheny/Holland/DeJohnette in a very different style of fusion band many years later.
Reading Kevin Fellezs's Birds Of Fire, about the birth of fusion music, opened up a few new portals for me, not least of which was a previously undiscovered trove of Herbie Hancock recordings.
Crossings is the first of these, and having listened to it now several times I wonder that I'd previously overlooked it, it's so breathtakingly good, and not a million miles away from music I already have, though sufficiently different that it's not just more of the same.
Sleeping Giant opens with drums reminiscent of Joni Mitchell's The Jungle Line, but shifts through phases dominated by piano, trumpet and soprano sax, with transitions provided by the synths, at times heavily funky, but constantly restless, with the tempo and texture never settling down. The muted horn itself is reminiscent of Miles.
Quasar begins with some thunderous piano chords, though overall the piece is gentle, notwithstanding the turbulent flute (well, it is the 70s!) and horn.
Water Torture is the most atmospheric piece, with the flute and horn now ethereal, complemented by the synths. The groove anticipates Headhunters somewhat.
Upon giving this a listen once I immediately ordered Sextant, so enthused was I. There's a little bit of a feeling that what Hancock was doing at the time was a logical extension of what Miles began with Filles De Kilimanjaro and which developed through In A Silent Way and on to Get Up With It, though there's nothing of the weirdness of On The Corner. Instead we have the experimentation with the synths that at the time would have put this at the leading edge technologically. According to Fellezs, at the time audiences found difficulty in accepting what Hancock was doing. Listening to it now it feels both still fresh but also somehow familiar. Maybe now people are ready.
I'll keep it short as other reviewers have done a good job of summing this album up, but ... being someone who was mostly into stuff from Herbie's Headhunters period I wasn't sure what to expect from this album. To say it is quite different is an understatement, but, this album, along with Mwandishi, has a lot to offer.
Listening to this album really is like travelling through a vast expanse and there is a real sense of space and atmosphere. Although a bit too 'free' for some there are moments of melody and structure but they soon drift into something else entirely.
Rather than structured tunes think of this album more as a musical narrative to some untold galactic tale.
This album is fantastic yes it only contains 3 songs but they are marvellous songs one is 24 minutes long and is extremely fun to listen to there is lots happening specially in the percussion side of things and Herbie plonks and plinks his synthsisers and pianos masterfully it is very brilliant album. Warning though Water Torture is called Water torture for a reason it is quite hard to listen to and feel comfortable for some reason