- Brand: Herbie Hancock
- Product Code: herbiehancock-prisoner
Reissued in 180 gram audiophile Black vinyl.
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