Mwandishi Time

Thanks to Bob Gluck for writing You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band. I’ve been meaning to read this book since it came out in 2012, and finally just got around to it. Gluck has given us a invaluable resource; indeed, this is a landmark in jazz criticism.

The members of the famous ensemble — Eddie Henderson, Bennie Maupin, Julian Priester, Buster Williams, Billy Hart, and Patrick Gleeson — were interviewed for the book. Along with reasonably conventional historical detail, there’s an astonishing amount of technical analysis and musical notation.

Read Gluck for in-depth appraisal. Here are my slender notes on the three studio albums (simply to help organize the titles and the sessions in my own brain).


— Ostinato (Suite For Angela). Not a suite, but a long 15/8 vamp (kinda E-flat sus) with two drummers (Ndugu Leon Chancler joins Jabali). Hancock’s keyboard solo is amazing. Actually it’s incredible the keyboardist is so damn comfortable in 15. In 1970 this must have been rather alarming to people like McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett.

— You’ll Know When You Get There. This is a lyrical tune in the vein of “Speak Like a Child” and “Maiden Voyage,” except that it is much more stop and start, with many cadenzas and a kind of “groupthink” that creates spontaneous structure, although a reassuring Thad Jones/Gil Evans “shout” ends each solo. Eddie Henderson shines in an extended feature. Maupin plays on flute and Hancock’s solo boasts an abstract and even “childlike” duo with Hart.

— Wandering Spirit Song. Ready for 21 minutes of a Julian Priester composition with “Wandering” in the title? No, not me either, not really, but I owe it to these masters to give another attempt. Reading Gluck is good, he explains what is going on step by step. Four minutes in, the (boring) opening drone resolves into a nice jazz waltz. Billy Hart’s contribution is undeniable. The composer takes a long lyrical solo; the trombonist could maybe be a shade hotter in the mix. After another head, the piece breaks into noise and Maupin gets a ferocious say on bass clarinet. The rhythm section swings hard in the waltz, but then plays the rubato burn just as well. That was surprising at the time, and to some extent remains novel today (at this point, more people are comfortable with the rubato burn than the swinging waltz). Hart told me he really loved the concluding duo of Hancock and Williams. The duo is in waltz-time, mostly, with effects and a general air of searching for extreme possibility.


— Sleeping Giant. A 6/8 drum fanfare with all hands on percussion begins a side-long suite. Hart still plays some of these solo patterns on the gig today. Eventually Hancock settles in for some extending musings in A phrygian. As on the previous LP Mwandishi, the first proper blowing heard on the album is a wonderful workout by the leader. In both cases, the keyboard solo has undergone a certain amount of post-production, where key phrases get underlined or dialed back via studio magic. It works. Some aspects of these LPs might be dated today, but not the keyboard solos. Written material is introduced; the piece moves through styles ranging from spacey avant chorales to the most hemmed-in and rigorous funk. The “doubled” (via electronics) Bennie Maupin cadenza with Buster Williams in fervent support is something that should be heard at least once. As a whole I can’t say “Sleeping Giant” is really to my taste, but it’s certainly going for something fresh. Gluck loves the aesthetic unconditionally, and his analysis of “Sleeping Giant” goes on for over six pages.

— Quasar. The other two tunes on Crossings are by Maupin. The big change is the addition of Patrick Gleeson on synthesizer. (The three studio LPs divide neatly into three sides with Gleeson and three without.) One of the most profound aspects of this band was how earthy the band was — deep blues, swing, funky for days — while also able to conjure a landscape suitable for science-fiction. Total Afro-Futurism. Hancock begins with a few lovely polychords on acoustic piano before a chorale with synthesizer takes over the narrative. The main tune is features a D-flat ostinato in 7/4, but that texture is under constant attack. I’m not sure all the synth stuff really holds up today, but the best of it is great. There are a lot of vamp-heavy early-70s jazz LPs that are far more ponderous and unlistenable than anything from this band.

— Water Torture. A synth-intro gives way to one of the most attractive pieces in repertoire, with a beautiful, spacious, even menacing hi-hat groove under tightly arranged horns. Free interludes alternate with that wonderful groove. This is genuinely mysterious music.


— Rain Dance. This is the only track where Gleeson’s primitive synth provides rhythmic information. Gleeson’s vamp is attractive enough, as is the first noisy blast of horns. The body of the track has Hart and Williams actually playing patterns in tandem with the sequencer. It works, I guess. More to my own taste are the absurd low synth drones that accompany Williams’s fabulous bass solo.

— Hidden Shadows. When I was first assembling a record collection, Sextant was the only LP from this era of Hancock I could find. “Hidden Shadows” was definitely my favorite track, with a mesmerizing odd-meter funk groove offered by Williams and Hart. Jabali plays a cowbell here, a comparatively rare occurrence. The out-of-key unison horn lines have a vaguely Ornette Coleman-esqe cast. Beautiful. Eventually Hancock brings in the acoustic piano for a rather shocking improvisation, full out, wild bitonal chords up and down the piano, almost as if he’s playing a fancy modernist concerto.

— Hornets. Another side-long jam, a cool funky riff underpinning diverse explorations. The horns solo but it is fairly collective in intent, an ethos only extended by Gleeson’s surreal contribution. When the clouds part a bit, eleven minutes into the track, Hancock delivers another devastating solo, this time on keyboards treated with a welter of post-production effects. The pianist was in his early 30s and actually at a kind of a peak as a player. The horns are all great, the collective ethos is compelling, but every time the leader takes total control of the narrative with an extended improvisation the music soars to an even higher level.

The band toured a lot and many bootlegs exist. The live setlist frequently included “Toys,” a swinger of the old school introduced on Hancock’s classic Blue Note LP Speak Like a Child. “Toys” gave Hancock, Williams, and Hart a spectacular chance to shine in a way quite different than most of the Mwandishi repertoire. In conversation, Hart and Williams have both cited the July 21st, 1971 version of “Toys” in Nice as something special. Here’s the scorching extended piano solo from that gig. All praise Buster Williams, for the swing is so damn profound in the bass.

At the end of the excerpt, the trio plays a special “break” for the next soloist, Eddie Henderson: a beautiful detail.

Gluck describes some of the bootlegs but You’ll Know When You Get There is a big book already. At some point a listener’s guide to the complete Mwandishi bootlegs would be helpful. I just learned that Brad Farberman is doing some of that research already on Twitter; the threads can be accessed from Farberman’s website.