The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
You'll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and The Mwandishi Band

by Bob Gluck
(The University of Chicago Press; Chicago)

From Chapter 6: Mwandishi The Recording

Mwandishi - The Sessions and the Music

The recording sessions took place at Wally Heider’s studio in San Francisco, in studio C, a small upstairs room. Heider’s was one of the leading California studios, the scene of notable rock recording sessions by Jefferson Airplane (Volunteers, 1969), Grateful Dead (American Beauty, 1970), Santana (Abraxas, 1970), and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (Déjà Vu, 1970). Rubinson had previously worked at Pacific Recorders in San Mateo, starting in 1969, because of its sixteen-track Ampex tape recorder. Difficulties with the studio owner suggested the need to find a new location. The soundboard in studio C at Heider’s was an eight-track DeMidio tape recorder, but as Rubinson recalls, “we configured it to work for sixteen.” Mixing took place in another room.

The tune was recorded in a single take. Rubinson’s production process, as he describes it, “combined old recording techniques and new ones; recording a live group performance, and then using tons of modern post-production techniques.” Postproduction included the addition of effects, but only very rarely, tape edits. Rubinson’s goal was to maintain the integrity of the original recorded performances, often using electronics to expand tendencies that are implicit in those performances.

The band added a second drummer, Ndugu Leon Chancler, on the tune “Ostinato.” Chancler notes:

“At the session, everybody was playing together, playing time. These were night time sessions. We would just get in and play and roll the tape. That was a period when various electronic studio tools were used in post-production. Not only was the music changing, but also so was the concept of recording, studio gear, and electronics. In the Mwandishi session, all of this was invisible because we were all playing live. Unlike on the East coast, where you had the classic Rudy Van Gelder sound, with the sound of the studio and the sound of the engineer, people in Los Angeles were used to post-production. On the West coast, because you had film work, the concept of recording was an added tool for the music. You didn’t have as many straight jazz sessions being recorded on the West coast; you had the Crusaders and a few other bands here, but by and large, most of the music being recorded on the West coast was recorded by studio guys – with and without click tracks – recording snippets of music which would be put together in post-production. Thus, the sound of the technology and of the engineer, and not just the sound of the room, made a recording what it was.”

The opening tune, “Ostinato: Suite for Angela,” is built on the continual repetition of an odd-metered phrase. “Ostinato” is the term used in classical music for a repeating phrase; a “riff,” its parallel in jazz, the blues, R&B, and rock music, is designed to establish a steady, repeating pattern, a rhythmic leitmotif above and around which musicians can create interlocking or contrasting melodic and rhythmic phrases. In this respect, Hancock’s use of ostinati references key aspects of the musical world of the African diaspora, as defined by musicologist Olly Wilson. A common thread within that tradition is highly syncopated music that embraces rhythmic complexity and interplay. Rhythmic patterns overlap and clash, but find resolution. There is also an emphasis on timbre, call-and-response patterns, and in some (but not all) music of the African diaspora, improvisation. In the tune “Ostinato,” solos move in and out of a single riff/ostinato played by various combinations of instruments. Hancock’s solos and his comping for other soloists also repeatedly engage complex call-and-response patterns. There are moments when the density of musical events can be overwhelming in intensity.

The infusion of blues, R&B, and gospel influences into the hard bop of Hancock’s early career explains his exploitation of this device, but only to some degree. The constant repetition of small cell-like structures also bears the mark of early French electronic music, based on Pierre Schaeffer’s concept of the “locked groove.” As discussed in chapter 4, Hancock had become familiar with early electronic music in 1964.

Schaeffer’s idea derived not from a rhythmic conception, but as a consequence of new recording technologies, beginning in the late 1940s. In his early experimentation and subsequent compositions, Schaeffer would record short sound clips, first on physical discs and, when it became available, on magnetic tape. The discs would be recorded in a manner that caused constant repetition. With the advent of magnetic tape, segments of tape would be cut, with the beginning and end connected using splicing tape, to create a “tape loop.” Schaeffer and others used this mode of repetition as a compositional device. Early modular synthesizers designed in the mid-1960s by Robert Moog, Donald Buchla, and Donald Pearlman (such as the Arp 2600 used by Patrick Gleeson) incorporated an electronic and more mechanized tool (“sequencers”) to repeat note and sound phrases, one that could be altered on the fly.

The Mwandishi band used the ostinato as a device to suit a range of musical goals. One function was to serve as a vamp, a steady riff on which soloists could improvise. A related function occurred when ostinati gradually shifted in time and by adding and subtracting melody notes, which created a sense of motion. Bassist Buster Williams was, as he continues to be, a master of invention when it comes to shifting ostinati, sometimes causing a gradual evolution and sometimes a sudden shift in mood or level of activity. Hancock at times added and subtracted repeats of an ostinato to cause subtle shifts in the musical texture or sense of time.

Another way that the Mwandishi band made use of ostinati was to freeze time by repeating short phrases multiple times, thereby creating a lack of motion. This could create tension between musical objects in motion and others in a holding pattern. Hancock often used this locked groove approach to effect musical stasis, sometimes momentarily, which could result in either a timeless quality or the building of tension, which could then be released by the dissolution of the ostinato. Hancock’s use of ostinati was a key mode by which he playfully directed musical direction and the level and style of interplay between his band mates.

In “Ostinato,” the repeating riff is only sometimes used as a constant vamp. During improvisational sections, it is also used to momentarily freeze time and create patterns of tension and release. These dynamics were intentionally built into the rhythmic structure of the ostinato theme. Hancock recalls:

“I wanted to write a tune with an underlying rock beat, but using it in a more open way than usual. I finally achieved it by making the number of beats uneven – it’s in 15/8, one bar of 4/4 and one of 7/8. I started with a repeated syncopated bass line in 4/4, a regular thing. The way I chose the notes in the riff was that I figured most of the rock bass lines telegraph their chord so distinctly that there’s no escaping it. I wrote something that could imply many chords ... some fourths even, like Trane and McCoy ... a kind of pentatonic scale, but starting on a different degree of that scale.”

“But then I thought “Why should I keep that all the way through?” so I changed it slightly and shortened every second phrase by half a beat. Now if, instead of two 4/4 bars, I had a 4/4 and a 7/8, it meant I had to change the notes to make them sound natural. Having done that, I had to decide what to put on top, and what it is, is different degrees of tension and release. Music and life flow because of those qualities, as do all the senses. It’s contrast: to know what cold water is, you have to know what hot water is. Music’s like that; it has to flow, and if there’s no tension and release it will be totally bland, with no vitality. ... Having 15 beats in a bar automatically sets up a little tension, because 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. That’s also true of harmony. Very little of the music is consonant, but the dissonance varies so greatly that it’s a matter of some of it being less dissonant and thus becoming consonant by comparison.”

Example 4. The ostinato theme of “Ostinato: Suite for Angela”                                                                                                             

The perception of shifting in and out of synch during collective improvisation serves to heighten this effect. There is much rhythmic interplay with Hancock using the steady pulse as a bouncing board to present ever-changing, syncopated chordal patterns. Despite the complex meter, Buster Williams “laid down the ‘Ostinato’ rock solid for the entire duration of the tune.” The steady pulse against which the improvisation pivots was reinforced by the addition of Ndugu Leon Chancler as a second drummer. Percussionist José Chepitó Areas, on congas and timbales, alternately reinforces and pushes against the beat.

Chancler, whose Swahili name means “brother, sister, or friend,” recalls how he became involved with this project:

“After I played the Inglewood Forum with the band, Herbie invited me to join the band. I didn’t do it since I had a scholarship to college. So Herbie said that since you bailed us out, why don’t you join us on our upcoming recording. Before the session, we never talked conceptually about what two drummers would do. We just started playing. Billy Hart and I just kind of blended for what it was and intervened in between each other. A lot of these guys were used to playing in four and we were doing this thing in fifteen. That was a different twist in itself! For me, I had been dabbling with Don Ellis, who was local; I had played on a few rehearsals and was a fan of his band, so I was familiar with odd times. While I had not yet done a recording session with two drummers before, since I had played avant-garde music during that period, playing with two drummers or percussionists was a familiar idea. We had been playing in a Coltranish kind of vein, but not with Herbie. When two drummers get together, both roles are suppressed a little; James Brown was already doing it; I was coming out of that first. All of it was in conjunction with the groove. The groove was first and foremost. It was just a matter of us getting a swing out of it. It wasn’t that hard. All the guys were there. They had a feel for it; they just took it and ran with it. Man, it was a great experience. I heard the Mwandishi recording when it first came out and I bought it. I dug it. It was mixed extremely well for the number of instruments that were there. There was a lot going on.”

Rubinson also recalls the recording sessions: “I remember Ronnie Montrose playing [guitar], and me on my knees working the wah-wah pedal with my hands.”

“Ostinato: Suite for Angela” opens with a textural introduction constructed from Echoplexed electric piano figures and angular saxophone lines. Following two seconds of silence, the ostinato itself begins at the half-minute mark. It is initially announced by a tag-team, first by the bass clarinet, then bass, and after that, by the two together, with the addition of congas and flanged drums. Around one minute, Hancock adds Echoplexed electric piano lines, which add another layer of rhythmic complexity. The Echoplex is a tape delay device first sold in the early 1960s. The addition of a moving tape head allowed a performer to shift the length of the delay in real time. Hancock developed a technique that allowed him to use the delay time for its rhythmic possibilities, used to great effect on this tune. At times during “Ostinato,” Hancock complements the delays with electronic pitch shifts. Pitch shifting is a technique we now take for granted on synthesizers, introducing a glide between notes that is impossible on an acoustical keyboard instrument (since there are no notes between the piano keys). But here, the effect is not a simple slide between notes, but a wobbling of the pitches, one part distortion and one part glide.

The ostinato continues steadily with each of the musicians adding and subtracting elements into the musical mix. For instance, at a minute and a half, Eddie Henderson plays three-note figures on trumpet, with Julian Priester adding a countermelody on trombone. Soon, the bass clarinet shifts from the ostinato to an oscillating countermelody. Closing in on two minutes, Hancock adds a rising figure on Echoplexed electric piano, which he manipulates live in real time. The overall effect of the countermelodies and counterrhythms is akin to a collective jam that sounds simultaneously free yet, due to the close attention to the ostinato and its variations, discernibly structured.

The improvisations that follow feature call-and-response (between Hancock and trumpeter Henderson), multilayered drumming, and Hancock’s periodically generated several-chord ostinati, playing against the bass line or drumming. At various points, the drumming increases in intensity and complexity, heightened in Hart’s case by flanging in postproduction (Chancler’s kit remains unprocessed). Various members of the band periodically join in the ostinato, strengthening its gravitational pull.

Hancock’s solo reflects a masterful integration of rhythmic playing and the use of ostinati and tone clusters, heightened by his use of the Echoplex. A detailed description offers a sense of the flavor of this solo. Hancock begins with short phrases played in call-and-response patterns, variously repeated, followed by increases in the Echoplex delay time and insistent repetition of a chordal figure. Between seven and eight minutes the level of intensity builds by Hancock’s use of repeated tone clusters, chords rising up the keyboard, and chordal ostinati, while he explores changes in the repeat time of the Echoplex. After more call-and-response chord patterns, as we approach eight and a half minutes, Hancock plays a distinctive melodic figure. This figure ascends, with increased Echoplex, followed by a new pattern, a chord played low in the electric piano’s register, repeated three times an octave up, and concludes with three quick repetitions of a chord up and down the octave. Hancock’s solo winds down with syncopated multiple-chord patterns before joining in the ostinato.

Example 5. “Ostinato,” 8:20–8:30, Hancock pattern one

Example 6. “Ostinato,” 8:35–8:50, Hancock pattern two

Example 7. “Ostinato,” 8:35–8:50, Hancock pattern three

Next, Bennie Maupin offers his atonal and segmented solo over Hancock’s syncopated, rhythmically accented comping, with Hart’s drumming picking up intensity, around eleven and half minutes. This is heightened by the addition of more flanging in postproduction. Once again, Maupin returns to the ostinato, soon joined by Hancock and the rhythm section. Hancock’s solo phrases alternate with drum flourishes and some conga, as Hancock repeats patterns that expand and shift in his comping. As the ostinato continues on the bass and bass clarinet, Hancock varies the patterns of notes and chords he plays, leaving space between sets of chords. The tune ends shortly after thirteen minutes, Hancock having rejoined the ostinato ensemble. The overall effect is an exhilarating display of collective improvisation that is all at once rhythmically solid yet complex and multiterraced, abstract – and – what we’ll term “funky.”

As we will see in chapter 7, “funky” is not a strictly musical word, referring more broadly to a celebratory attitude toward life coupled with a joyful loosening of inhibition. But most relevant to the present description of Hancock’s playing, it is useful to speak in strictly musical terms. Within hard bop, “funky” refers to a syncopated music that pushes against the beat, sometimes anticipating and on other occasions following it. Horace Silver’s tune “Filthy McNasty” (1961) captures both the musical and extra-musical sides of the term “funky.” During the late 1960s, a new musical dance form emerged in which the groove was central. The rhythmic emphasis was on the downbeat, as opposed to the practice in rhythm and blues as well as idiomatic jazz, where accents land on the second and fourth beats. The bass plays a leading role in creating the groove, joined by other instruments, each creating its own distinct syncopated rhythm. Together these interlock, forming a rhythmically complex whole that anticipates, comments on, and prepares the arrival of the downbeat. In his solos on “Ostinato,” and from that point forth within the music of the Mwandishi band, Hancock comps by creating syncopated rhythmic/melodic patterns (ostinati) that dance around and about the pulse, forming an integral element within the band’s chain of interlocking beats. The more that Hancock’s figures anticipate and ornament the beat with syncopation, the funkier his playing becomes. Borrowing a practice developed by rock, R&B, and funk guitarists, Hancock routed his Fender Rhodes through a wah-wah pedal that, when toggled, emphasizes different frequencies, heightening the attack and emulating vowel sounds. This effect heightens the funkiness of his playing, in part due to the referencing of similar guitar techniques increasingly utilized within the new genre. The wah-wah drew on a practice within early jazz where vocal sounds are mimicked by placing a plunger within the bell of trumpets and trombones. The “dirtying” of the sound suggested the lack of timbral purity, a “nastiness” that was integral to both early jazz and, subsequently, to funk.

The second tune on side one is Hancock’s lyrical “You’ll Know When You Get There.” It opens with an introduction: three repetitions of a chord by Hancock, each time moving to a higher octave. This is followed by the melody, played by trumpet and flute. There is an ascending A-E figure at bar 11, and then a pause. After some jingling bells, Hancock plays three high register chords in bars 13-14, thick with reverberation, to which Williams adds some rapid filigree on bass and Maupin holds a sustained flute note, ending with a double stop by Williams, which he slides downward. After that there is another pause. Then, the bass line continues, joined by a countermelody on trombone and trilling flute. Henderson continues the melody on trumpet. A broad, reedy toned soprano saxophone, overdubbed, lays in a singable countermelody a little before the one-minute mark.

Example 8. Opening passage to “You’ll Known When You Get There”e

Example 9. “You’ll Know When You Get There,” segue harmonies, bars 29–32

A brief harmonic segue is played by bass and electric piano, followed by a return to the melody, played in unison by trumpet and flute, the final note echoing. This is followed by a brief pause. Close to a minute and a half, Hancock’s rising chords repeated from bars 13–14 precede a flute trill and some rapid bass filigree. Next, the trombone countermelody returns, the second time accompanied by an extended trumpet trill.

A brief trumpet cadenza is tagged on, placed in a deeply reverberant space. The trumpet continues to play solo approaching the two and three-quarter minute mark, when the bass and, very quietly, electric piano return, playing the harmonic segue. During this solo section, one can hear very faint echoes of what may have been other instrumental tracks. At three minutes, Hart offers a defined, yet relaxed drum pulse, as the trumpet solo continues. The bass playing is lyrical and melodic, yet it anchors the trumpet solo. Hancock’s lightly echoed electric piano comping sets a gentle mood.

With the trumpet solo continuing, shortly before four minutes, Williams plays a bass motif built on a B octave leap up-and-down motion and then moves into more soloistic territory at four minutes. The rhythm section repeats the harmonic segue, extended and just after four and a half minutes, the whole band plays the refrain.

The opening bass figure returns, but rather than returning to the melody, a three-minute flute solo begins, starting over a melodic bass line. The lyrical mood shifts, as Hancock introduces a fast-moving solo line of his own, the flute rapidly fluttering, elongated by reverberation. Maupin then plays brief notes and turns of phrase on the flute, accompanied and countered by a rhythmic bass riff, which builds on the octave figure used during the trumpet solo. Hancock plays an echoed, rising riff that he repeats as a response to Maupin’s phrases. Hart locks the beat into a metered feel soon around five and a half minutes, with Hancock’s electric piano playing a five-note/chord riff (three notes downward and two back up), the piano sounding like a vibraphone. At six and a half minutes, the pulse briefly takes on a swing feel, and then the harmonic segue returns, bringing Maupin’s solo to a close. There is flanging on the drums during the latter portion of the tune. The band plays the refrain to close out the flute solo, followed by a return to the opening bass line, and a drum roll.

Hancock’s two-minute solo begins around seven and a half minutes. The solo line is quasi-tonal, drawing on heavy echo and reverberation, and accompanied by soloistic drumming, flanged in postproduction. Hancock plays a descending melodic figure that moves all the way down the keyboard, followed by a military march figure on Hart’s snare drum (with flanging continuing). We seem to enter a very different emotional space as Hancock plays a twelve-note melodic phrase. After a bass note and some drum fill, Hancock repeats the phrase, transposes it, and repeats it yet again in the original key. One minute into his solo, Hancock’s harmonies suggest an expanded version of the segue section that is also used to comp for the other solos.

Bass and drums play a brief duet, joined by Hancock’s harmony around the nine-minute mark, continuing the segue harmonies. A twice-repeated series of sharply attacked chords on electric piano, bass, and drums bring his solo toward a conclusion. One final series of the chords, played more delicately, lead to the refrain. This is followed by a return of the opening bass line, the melody played by trumpet, with the trombone countermelody, concluding with the upward E-A trumpet sweep; Hancock plays a reverberant upward slide. Bells precede a brief pause, a hint of the three ascending electric piano chords from bars 13–14. Then a flute trill ends the tune.

Pianist Billy Childs reflects on the version of this tune that appears on the recording:

“The album Mwandishi strikes me as a very impressionistic album, very influenced by things like Ravel and the French impressionists. In Herbie’s playing with the Echoplex, he plays a run and the echo follows it, it’s like a harp doing a glissando. It’s a beautifully electronic sound but the result is like an acoustic, natural instrument. He plays the Rhodes like it’s an orchestra. This is because the acoustic aspect of the sound is real salient here. The Fender Rhodes solo on “You’ll Know When You Get There” has some of the most beautiful interplay between musicians that I’ve ever heard. Herbie plays a lyrical riff, like an elegiac lullaby, while Billy Hart is playing a rudimentary, almost military-like snare figure, and the image that comes to my mind is like fallen soldiers. And Buster Williams’ bass playing behind Eddie Henderson’s trumpet solo. Billy is like the core, propelling the music in those cool environments. Billy shows such a finely tuned musical intuition, a decision making about what is appropriate for the most dramatic effect at any moment: how can the music hit you viscerally in the most effective way. He’s a storyteller, like a griot on the drums. He uses the drums as orchestration to tell stories.”

Filling the entire second side is Julian Priester’s “Wandering Spirit Song,” captured in an exploratory, intuitive studio performance. The tune begins with an extended pedal tone, which provides a stable harmonic grounding, over which rises a simple, long phrase, which is answered by two variations on it, the final one floating back down to earth, followed by a light jazz waltz and then a series of solos whose length allows a depth and breadth of reflective consideration rarely found on jazz recordings. The band coalesces periodically at peak moments and during more freely drawn passages, eventually coming to a conclusion that feels like settling into a resting place of deep quietude. “Wandering Spirit Song” mirrors the dynamism of the band in live performance in its changing moods, varying textures, and surprising turns of events.

The first half of the tune is reflective and placid, beginning with the opening statement of the melody and a trombone solo, followed by a restatement of the melody at nine and a half minutes. The essentially static mood is suddenly broken when the final phrase of the melody splinters apart. The horns break into a polyphony based on a three-note phrase, first heard in the trumpet. The gesture descends by a small interval and rises steeply and is echoed freely in time by each of the horns, calling to mind the opening of John Coltrane’s Ascension (1965). The atmosphere becomes highly charged but, after a minute, begins to collapse on itself.

In keeping with the band’s shifting moods and textures, even at this early stage in their development, a jagged-edged solo by Maupin emerges from the fog. The solo is comprised of short melodic fragments, sometimes just one or two notes. The sense of instability and fracture, at odds with the tune’s opening repose and stasis, is heightened by the postproduction application of tape delay and reinsertion. Hancock further emphasizes the tense mood by building his comping on phrases of four, and later two, descending parallel fourths. The tension continues to build over the ensuing three minutes, when a cacophony of free improvising horns, supported by the rhythm section, charges the air.

But the mood once again shifts with the sudden return of the waltz section of the tune, restoring the initial calm. This state of calm doesn’t last long, as the band briefly considers a return to free improvisation. But this strategy soon dissolves into a static texture reminiscent of the opening of the performance. The listener detects the conclusion of the tune. But instead, what follows is a lengthy coda, a spare but expressive interchange between Hancock and bassist Buster Williams. A fine line separates what constitutes a bass solo with electric piano comping, from a delicate duet, pointing to the camaraderie and empathy that had grown between the two musicians.

Despite a placid opening, “Wandering Spirit Song” has taken the listener on an emotional and often stormy ride. Rather than stasis, one experiences sharply changing moods and textures and passages of passion and intensity. Waves of building collective energy alternate with tumultuous solo playing sometimes supported and other times challenged by the collective. Moments of fragility and beauty coexist with elements of dynamism and pandemonium, all within the performance of single composition.

© University of Chicago Press 2012; used by permission.

You'll Know When You Get There - Herbie Hancock and The Mwandishi Band by Bob Gluck

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