“With the formation of his great electric sextet, Herbie Hancock’s music took off into outer and inner space, starting with the landmark Mwandishi album recorded in a single session on New Year’s Eve. Ever the gadgeteer, Herbie plays with electronic effects devices — reverb units, stereo tremelo, and Echoplex — which all lead his music into spacier, open-ended directions very much influenced by Miles Davis’ electric experiments, rendering it from post-bop conventions.
There are just three tracks: the insistent 15/4-meter Afro-electric-funk workout “Ostinato (Suite for Angela),” the inquisitive “You’ll Know When You Get There” with its ethereal Hancock voicings, and trombonist Julian Priester’s Silent Way – influenced “Wandering Spirit Song,” which eventually dips into tumultuous free form. Eddie Henderson emerges as a major trumpet soloist here, probing, jabbing, soliloquizing; Bennie Maupin comes over from Lee Morgan’s group to add his ominous bass clarinet and thoughtful alto flute; and Buster Williams’ bass and Billy Hart’s flexible drums propel the rhythm section. Santana’s José Chepitó Areas and Leon “Ndugu” Chancler also add funky percussive reinforcement to “Ostinato,” along with guitarist Ron Montrose. The group’s collective empathy is remarkable, and Hancock had only begun to probe the outer limits with this extraordinary music.” – Allmusic
Liner Notes from the 2013 Complete Columbia Albums Box Set:
“The new sextet that recorded both of Herbie’s next two Warner Brothers LPs, Mwandishi (Herbie’s Swahili name, meaning ‘Composer’) and Crossings, was formed in 1970, with Eddie Henderson, Julian Priester, Bennie Maupin, and Billy Hart (contextually replacing Coles, Brown, Henderson, and Heath) and Buster Williams (retained from the first sextet). Thus began Herbie’s odyssey of growth, change, exultation, and ultimate commercial disappointment leading to a re-invention and rebirth that had few, if any, precedents in jazz history.
The Mwandishi Band developed into a unique group, which created a conceptual music that mixed contemporary classical music with African textures, group improvisation and simultaneous individuality based on the varied personalities within the band. Crossings (Warner Bros., 1971-72) was a dramatic statement as to how far form and conception had come within the world of jazz music.
The Mwandishi Band was an orchestra inside of a jazz septet. Each musician played a variety of instruments, all of them doubled on exotic percussion instruments, and in live performances an entire set of music could be one continuous suite. Herbie expanded the group to include the synthesist Patrick Gleeson in 1972, allowing for colors that were unheard of in music at the time. On Crossings, an artistic peak for this band, these fresh and inventive textures and formats for improvisations cemented the group’s place in contemporary jazz history.” – Bob Belden, 2013 Sony Box Set Liner Notes
Warner Remastered Edition Liner Notes:
Back in the Sixties, the Watermelon Man was a cool young hipster in a mohair suit who was making his name with Miles Davis. His Maiden Voyage, a street-smart use of scales and modes, began life as a cologne advert for American TV while his Fat Albert Rotunda was a whole lot funkier. Mwandishi, though, was something else. In 1971 Time magazine voted it among the ten best albums of 1971, while Rolling Stone called it “a session of driving firebrand improvisations.”
Herbie Hancock, who wrote “Watermelon Man”, the most popular soul-jazz number of the Sixties, was always looking to move on from working with Miles. He wrote the soundtrack for Antonioni’s Blow Up, one of the key films of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ and then wrote music with Bill Cosby for the comedian’s TV show (that become the album Fat Albert Rotunda). Then he came back late from his honeymoon in South America only to find Chick Corea had taken his place in Miles Davis’s band. Whether he wanted to or not, now he had to move on.
Miles’s manager asked him who he planned to have in his trio. The Watermelon Man formed a sextet. He had af his disposal a host of musical experiences, from playing Mozart as an eleven year-old prodigy with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to playing bebop, hard bop, soul jazz and free jazz. He had played modal iazz and he had a pioneer’s interest in combining jazz and rock. His proto-jazz-rock session for Blue Note with Eric Gale on guitar and Bernard Purdie on drums from 1966 had been shelved but Miles had bought him an electric piano for the Water in the Pond session in 1967 as the trumpeter moved his own band towards a jazz and rock synthesis. They were all valuable lessons to help the Watermelon Man to find a new identity.
His sextet debuted in November 1968 at New York’s Village Vanguard. It was a quiet affair, the music based on an album he made for Blue Note called Speak Like A Child, but it was music that was subject to change. Two albums later came Mwandishi, the music new, radical and quite unlike anything he had done before. “As beautiful as Hancock’s past work is”, continued Rolling Stone magazine, “it’s really gratifying to see him moving in this new direction, because this is the brand of black music which will probably be most crucial in the Seventies.”
The group that made the album would stay together for four years, laying down a unique textural sophistication of suavely blended horns and fluid rhythms behind Hancock’s fluid inner and outer space improvisations on electric keyboards. Mwandishi, meaning ‘composer’ in Swahili, was also Herbie’s adopted name, a self given appellation, “My purpose in having this name is firstly because I like it and the sound of its strength and secondly, that I want to recognize my African ancestry”, he asserted.
“So much of African thing has been squeezed out of black America, we’re taking a look at ourselves and recognizing our heritage”, Hancock continued. “We haven’t changed our names merely added an alternative. Mganga, meaning ‘Doctor of Advice’, was adopted by trumpeter Eddie Henderson, a trained psychiatrist, reedman Bennie Maupin used Mwile, meaning ‘Body of Good Health’, trombonist Julian Priester used Pepo Mtoto meaning ‘Spirit Child’, bassist Buster Williams used Mchezaji meaning ‘The Player’ and drummer Billy Hart Used Jabali, meaning ‘Strength’.
Mwandishi the album was primarily concerned with free forms and collective improvisation that often used unusual time signatures. The key cut is “Ostinato (Suite for Angela), dedicated to the political activist Angela Davis, and is in 15/4, effectively a bar of 4/4 followed by a bar of 7/8 and features the rhythmic complexity provided by guests Leon ‘Nduggu’ Chanceler on drums, Jose ‘Cepito’ Areas on Congas, timbales, and percussion and Ron Montrose’s guitar (on “Ostinato only). While it has its roots in the music of Miles Davis’s electronic experimentation, this is music that asserts its own identity, “Having fifteen beats to a bar automatically sets up a little tension,” explained Hancock, “just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it eludes you. At the end of each bar we all hit a phrase together and that’s a release.”
In a June 1971 interview, Hancock claimed Mwandishi was his favorite record of all the records he had made up to that point. He said it had roots in his past, specifically the tune “The Egg” from Empyrean Isles, but now the compositional forms were in place and the soloists better able to take the music in whatever direction they wanted. But for all the critical acclaim the album received when it was originally issued in 1971, it was not until it was re-released as a double album with 1972’s Crossings under the title Treasure Chest that its complexities found a wider audience (originally only a limited number of US pressings of Mwandishi were imported into the UK, for example). Now it is back again; one of the great, legendary albums of the early Seventies. – Stuart Nicholson
Black Music, March 1974
Rolling Stone, September 2, 1971
Melody Maker, August 7, 1971
Liner Notes from Mwandishi – The Complete Warner Brothers Recordings (1994):
By the close of 1970, when Hancock recorded his next session, only Williams remained in the sextet. With the exception of the bassist and trombonist Julian Priester, the personnel was made up of younger and less familiar figures, and everyone in the band had taken a Swahili name. Hancock was Mwandishi, the horn players were Mganga Eddie Henderson, Pepo Mtoto Julian Priester and Mwille Benny Maupin; and the rhythm section was completed by Mchezaji Buster Williams and Jabali Billy Hart. An affinity quickly arose among these musicians, which Hancock described with great enthusiasm during a June 1971 interview with this author shortly after the album Mwandishi was released.
“My current band has hit a point where we are really turning out some great group music,” he reported. “One night in Chicago this band gave me the greatest musical experience of my life. We all just played beyond ourselves. I know how well each man can play, and we all played better. It was a spiritual revelation. We have come close to capturing that magic several times since. My other band had excellent nights, too, but the emphasis was more on solos. That band, I don’t think, was as daring as the one I have now. The earlier band would go through several mood changes in one tune; it was like a game we used to play, but we don’t try to do that anymore. I think the group is a little more subtle now. We try not to push the music any certain way, we just let it happen the way it happens.”
“I’ve played with some fantastic soloists,” he went on, “but there’s a thing that I think is more important than solos. I think music is supposed to make you high, to give you an experience so that you can transport yourself from wherever you are and that whole physical contact with the world so that you can gain a little more consciousness-inner consciousness. think it would be impossible for most of my early music to do that, just from the very nature of the material; but my new music is set up to do just that. It’s set up to make you high.”
Hancock called Mwandishi “my favorite record of all the records I have ever made, and the loosest I’ve ever done. None of the tunes have chords. After we play the melody, then we can go where we want to. Usually the structure of the melody leads you in a certain direction, so at least you’re not walking off of a cliff. That’s what I was trying to do on ‘The Egg’” (from his 1964 Blue Note masterpiece Empyrean Isles), “and it worked out fine. I was lucky; but it’s not luck anymore. Now I’ve found a way of structuring the material so that when there are no guidelines to follow, there’s enough of a catalyst in the writing to give you something to go on.”
The new approach is quickly defined in “Ostinato (Suite For Angela),” dedicated to political activist Angela Davis. After Henderson’s trumpet and Maupin’s bass clarinet spin incantations over Hancock’s Fender Rhodes, Maupin and Williams state the lopsided vamp in 15/4 that provides the track’s melodic content. The second drum part, played by Ndugu Leon Chancler, and the guitar and percussion effects, provided by Ronnie Montrose and Jose “Cepito” Areas, respectively add further layers of complexity to the hypnotic pattern of eight beats plus seven beats.
The full group simmers its way into Henderson’s trumpet solo-a journey of probing insistence that elicits attentive responses from Hancock and the percussionists. Like his predecessor, Henderson captured some of Miles Davis’s melancholy, though his attack and sense of structure were his own. Priester reinforces the bass line as Henderson concludes. Then Hancock enters for a typical display of how to employ voicings and odd meters for maximum drama. The drummers, who really open up under the electric piano solo, settle down for Benny Maupin, who plays a bass clarinet solo of agitated meandering that recalls his innovative and often neglected contribution to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. Note that Maupin, originally a tenor saxophonist, is never heard on tenor sax on these recordings – one sign that Hancock was headed somewhere else with his music.
“You’ll Know When You Get There” is a logical extension of Hancock’s impressionistic side, with Williams on bass violin and Henderson carrying the melodic lead while the others move in and out of focus. There is particularly keen interaction in the rhythm section throughout, although Henderson also blows passionately without accompaniment. After building to some gentle explosions, the theme is reprised and Maupin emerges on alto flute.
Williams’s insistent bass often seems to be in the lead with Maupin the accompanist as the energy flows between alto flute and rhythm section. Hazy cadences from Hancock bring the theme back briefly. What follows sounds more like a trio collage than a piano solo per se and illustrates Hancock’s comments. For all of the atmospherics on this track, the melodic eloquence of Hancock the composer remains.
One of the strongest signs of the collective spirit that powered this sextet is the written contribution of its members. Priester’s lengthy “Wandering Spirit Song” is another example of music as experience. It opens slowly, like a flower seeking the sun, with bowed bass and low bass clarinet tones implanting an ominous texture on Hancock’s more optimistic keyboard ruminations. Maupin and a muted Henderson slowly sob the theme, with Priester ultimately joining the bass’ supporting dirge before a more sprightly waltz feeling emerges.
As the melody gains assertiveness, the horns separate and Priester emerges with a lyrical trombone solo that again leaves space for active support from Hancock and Williams. He is followed, after a reprise of the waltz, by more extended collective improvisation that ultimately yields to an abstract Maupin episode on bass clarinet. In our interview, Hancock remarked that he had come to view passages like this as more commercial than Fat Albert Rotunda because “the direction is a direction that people are ready to receive. It relates to things that are happening today, like vegetarianism, yoga, the Maharishi, organic foods, spirituality in general.”
Maupin definitely takes the band through some visions worthy of Carlos Casteneda, before a return to the theme and an extended free concluding duet by Williams and Hancock. “Albums like Mwandishi fit into what I think might be considered the new mainstream of jazz,” Hancock said at the time. “The new avant-garde has finally found a direction, but it’s like a spectrum. It’s not one direction; there are many directions and they all have to do with giving people an experience rather than just giving them a bunch of notes.” – Bob Blumenthal, 1994
Recorded December 31, 1970 at Wally Heider Recording Studios, San Francisco, CA
Produced by David Rubinson for Fillmore Corporation
A Hancock Records, Inc. Production
Executive Producer: Lee Weisel
Engineered by Fred Catero, Catero Sound Company
Assistant Engineer: Aulikki Niitynen
Originally released as WS-1898 in 1971.