[Bill asked me] if I knew that stuff I had done in my kind of avant-garde period, with Sextant and Mwandishi and [the Japanese-only release] Dedication, if I knew that those records were big influences on a lot of people who are carving out electronica. I said, ‘What are you talking about?” I didn’t believe him.’
The “kind of avant-garde period” to which Herbie refers includes the years in which he led the group now know as “Mwandishi.” This exotic group released three albums between 1971 and 1973 – each a financial failure and the eventual cause of their breakup. Though Mwandishi was not financially viable, it broke ground in multiple areas and represents a pivotal time in Hancock’s career. However, this iconic group is too often overlooked in jazz history. A brief survey of common jazz history textbooks reveals not a single mention of this ensemble or their creative output. This apparent disregard may be due to the fact that the Mwandishi period is sandwiched between Hancock’s tenure with Miles Davis’ “second great quintet” and his international success with Head Hunters (1974) and ultimately “Rockit” (1983). Whatever the reason, the Mwandishi period is neglected at great cost to the timelines of Afrofuturism, jazz-rock fusion/electronic music, and Herbie’s illustrious career.
Kevin Fellezs writes,
Afrofuturism is a term that Mark Dery coined in his 1995 essay “Black to the Future” to describe an aesthetic he traced through works of black American writers, musicians, and artists. A blend of science fiction, African iconography, technology, and fantasy, Afrofuturism allowed a place for blacks both in history, not merely myth, and in a “high tech” future in which they were largely absent. Afro-futurists freed blacks from a past that was either unknowable or tragic while envisioning a future that could hold promise rather than peril.”
Afrofuturism has a Marcus Garvey-like tone at its core: a land in which black people, particularly black Americans, belong and own. Garvey once wrote, “We have a beautiful history, and we shall create another in the future that will astonish the world” (Jacques-Garvey, p. 7, 2009). In jazz, and perhaps all music, the gold standard of Afrofuturism is Sun Ra (1914-1993).
Ra’s music, film appearances, poetry, and imagery, each supported and contributed to his Afrofuturistic philosophy and performances. Ra’s most well known ensemble is “The Arkestra” which performed avant-garde jazz in futuristic space-age costumes. The group’s visual signature consisted of brightly colored and sequined costuming, supplemented with Egyptian and cosmic iconography. The group’s modus operandi eschewed the European influence on melody, harmony, and instrumental technique. Scenes of Ra, a pianist, slamming his fists on the keyboard, using the backs of his hands to slide between the extreme registers, and even spinning around in circles while seemingly haphazardly depressing piano or fender Rhodes keys were commonplace. The other instrumentalists also employed non-traditional techniques. Conventional European-influenced harmony and melody, which can be observed in bebop and hard-bop, the reigning jazz styles of the time, were abandoned for what could easily be mistaken as cacophony. Also significant was Ra’s use of electronic keyboard and synthesizers to create strange and often jarring sounds during performances. This conflation of the new (music technology) with the old (Egyptian imagery) contributed to Ra’s creation of a musical world that was undeniably their own, aurally and visually. This musical separatist message was further clarified in his film Space is the Place. In the movie Ra travels to Earth in a music-powered spaceship from a planet where only black people live and ultimately chooses a few black Americans to return to the planet with him (while simultaneously denying the option to white people as well as black people of questionable character). Though Ra and his music were never fully in the public eye, his influence can be seen in the works of George Clinton, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and others. In jazz, however, Herbie Hancock, while not as overt as Ra, can be viewed in many was as the secondary Afrofuturistic torchbearer.
Hancock’s “Mwandishi” group can be heard as an extension of Miles’ second great quintet (Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams), where the lines between melody, solos, soloists, and harmony became extremely obscured. This new approach became known as post-bop, a style of jazz that continues to be the guiding basis of jazz performances and compositions today. The tired formula of the performance of a tune’s melody, followed by each musician soloing over the harmony for a few choruses, had fallen out of favor with the forward-moving jazz musicians of the 1960s, such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane. This reaction to the formalism of bebop and hard-bop paved the way for further exploration in jazz that would reinvent the genre. Intentionally or not, Davis spearheaded the creation of multiple genres following the decline of be-bop: modal jazz, cool jazz, third-stream, post-bop, and jazz-rock fusion. Freedom of form and harmony was perhaps most clearly introduced with post-bop circa 1965, with his album E.S.P., and the electronic elements, including electric guitarist John McLaughlin and keyboardists Hancock and Chick Corea, in In a Silent Way (1969) often demarcate Davis’ “electric period.” The natural amalgamation of mid 1960s post-bop with late 1960s jazz-fusion created fertile ground for Hancock, upon which he would further expand once he left Davis.
Hancock’s first albums following his time with Davis are The Prisoner and Fat Albert Rotunda, both recorded in 1969.
The Prisoner was his last album for Blue Note Records, and features the unusual instrumental of a nonet, yet is still aesthetically within the realm of hard-bop and post-bop, as would be expected for a Blue Note Records album. Fat Albert Rotunda, Hancock’s first album for Warner Bros. Records, is an R&B influenced product that was an outgrowth of his compositions for Bill Cosby’s television show, Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert. Hancock’s next three albums (first two with Warner Bros. Records, the third with Columbia Records), however, bear little resemblance. These albums represent what is now referred to as the Mwandishi period. They feature a return to the genre-defying sounds of late 1960s Miles, with some resemblance to Ra’s work, and most importantly provide one of the first looks at Hancock’s unique musical vision.
[Herbie] says that “history is involved in the past and the future” and the music and art from that period was his search for “the humanism of the past and the earthiness of Africa and primary elements and the planets. People are the caretakers of the environment, who are usually the indigenous peoples of different lands. That combined with my interests in science and technology and futurism is where I’m coming from.
In the quote above Hancock mentions “history,” “past and future,” “humanism,” “earthiness of Africa,” “primary elements,” “planets,” “science,” “technology,” and “futurism,” and each of these elements plays a critical role in Hancock’s music in the years immediately following his years with Davis. Post-Davis, Hancock began to shift away from his acoustic performances that were firmly rooted in the hard and post-bop aesthetic, and the three albums recorded by Mwandishi (and the preceding Fat Albert Rotunda) exemplify this. Each release features only three tracks and contain titles such as “Qusar,” “Water Torture,” and “Rain Dance.” The group creates extended sonic landscapes on each track while crafting atmospheric mood music with flashes of electronica, and jam band grooves. Philosophical, spiritual (Hancock became a Nichiren Buddhist about this time), and technological elements began to overtly pervade his music. Chief among these new characteristics is Africanism and technology.
In the late 1960s, Hancock adopted the Swahili name Mwandishi and subsequently titled his 1971 album Mwandishi. Each member of the group adopted a Swahili name as well (according to Patrick Gleeson, Hancock’s sister assigned them [Opperman, 2015]): Maganga for trumpeter Eddie Henderson, Mwile for woodwind player Bennie Maupin, Pepo Mtoto for trombonist Julian Priester, Mchezaji for bassist Bust Williams, and Jabali for Billy Hart. This core group of musicians was the basis for the three albums Herbie recorded between 1971 and 1973: Mwandishi (1971), Crossings (1972), Sextant (1973).
In 1972, just after the recording of Crossings, Herbie’s agent, David Robinson, recommended Patrick Gleeson (an ex-professor from San Francisco State University with a Ph.D. in 18th Century Literature turned music studio owner with an interested in synthesizers and live patching [synthesizers were not programmable at this time]) to help set up synthesizers for Hancock (Opperman, 2015). When visiting Gleeson for the first time in San Francisco Hancock heard Gleeson play the syntherizers and asked Gleeson to record over two of the three master tacks of Crossings. Hancock liked the result so much that he kept Gleeson’s additions, and asked Gleeson to tour with the group. Gleeson, who is white, said in an interview that there was tension around him being the only white member of the group, but that Herbie’s sister gave him the Shwili name, too, “Bwana.” “And if you don’t know what that is,” Gleeson said, “then it’s basically the great white hunter – whitey – with pith helmet, khaki shorts, and the works. They weren’t happy with me as the first white guy in the band” (Opperman, 2015).
It was electronic music, not jazz. And when I say electronic music, I really mean musique concrète – tape manipulations and that sort of thing. There was no real distinction at the time” – quoted in “Wearing A Really Different Fur: How Patrick Gleeson introduced the synthesizer to Herbie Hancock and changed jazz in the process.
The above quotation refers to Gleeson’s time before joining Hancock, his first experiments with manipulation of recorded sounds and noises. Though Gleeson’s personal journey with music and electronics began with musique concrete, by splicing up tape recordings of everyday sounds, he soon found his home working with the newest synthesizers a la Elektronische Musik.
Pierre Schaeffer,Timothy Taylor writes, introduced musique concrète, in 1948. Musique concrète was developed following the Second World War and was the result of European (particularly French) composers grappling with the role of music and its assimilation of technology in society following the first nuclear war. Musique concrète’s practitioners recorded sounds and noises and then manipulated the recording by changing the playback speeds, removing attacks, splicing the tape, and so forth. Elektronische Musik, on the other hand, was developed under the care of Austro-Germans and derived its music not from manipulating recordings, but instead created them via synthesizers. Serial composers, typically aligned with the Second Viennese School (wikipedia link), were often Elektronische Musik composers as well (Taylor, p. 53, 2001). These two approaches to music reveal on what Taylor refers to as a “technocratic spirit” following WWII. However, adherents of theses two genres were fiercely divided and opposed the others music on both musical and philosophical grounds. Pierre Henry (b. 1927) avoided direct alliance with either of these two disparate sides and is today, Taylor writes, hailed as the father or grandfather of techno music (Taylor, p. 42, 2001).
Patrick Gleeson’s happenstance collaboration with Hancock, roughly twenty years after musique concrète and Electronic Muisk, sparked a relationship of monumental consequences, yet like the music of Mwandishi it is often disregarded. Hancock had originally intended to play the synthesizer himself, yet was so taken by Gleeson’s work that he had Gleeson join the group. Fellezs quotes Hancock noting that prior to touring with Gleeson the synthesizer was “only used on recordings,” and that “there was no precedent for him to follow” for live performances. Gleeson likewise said that he was “just making it up” (Opperman 2015). Furthermore, Hancock stated that Gleeson helped open “the music much more, because we started to get more and more away from the note, and into sounds and colours and textures. That gave us a much broader range of choices” (Fellezs, p. 203, 2011). When Gleeson joined the Mwandishi tour he used the recently released APR 2600,
a downgrade from the Moog 3 that he used to overdub on Crossings (the Moog 3 was too big to take on tour). Fellezs quotes Hancock’s lamentations that Gleeson’s sounds were less interesting on the road due to the limitation of the APR 2600. In his interview with Opperman, Gleeson revealed the amount of work it took to live patch the synthesize in live performances:
“I had the back panel, some filters, a sample/hold generator and all that. And I could put them together in any combination of ways. On top of that I had a wah-wah pedal and an Echoplex. And when the band was playing, things were moving so quickly that I was forced to think like a jazz musician. I’d take a patch cable and plug it in, then plug another, and that would last until the band moved on to something else. I’d change patches maybe 300 times a night. I had 20-35 patch cords.”
Gleeson and Hancock’s early adoption of synthesizers in live performance is noteworthy not only for its originality, but also because it marks an entryway of Electrick Muisck into the public consciousness. Soon after Mwandishi Hancock would record Headhunters (1974), and continually use synthesizers in his music including on the 1981 hit, “Rockit.”
“Hancock’s Afro-futuristic early-1970s combination of earthy funk, cosmic groove and the omniversal vibe is reflected in the LP cover art as well as the music.”
The album art for Mwandishi is the outlier here – it features two silhouettes of a man with an Afro and glasses. However, Crossings, Sextant, and the majority of his later albums showcase overt Afrofuturism. In the 1970s artist Mati Klarweinart began receiving recognition for his album art, most notably for his 1970 cover for Davis’ Bitches Brew, the music of which was highly influential to Hancock.
Klarweinart continued to create artwork in a similar style for such artists as Earth Wind and Fire, Santana, and Jimi Hendrix. The art featured on Hancock’s Crossings and Sextant by Robert Springett is undeniably in the style of Klarweinart. The art for Crossings showcases four black men dressed in full body white gowns standing on the shore of an alien landscape. Nearby two men wearing t-shirts and shorts are seen getting out of a canoe with a sense of trepidation. Sextant, unlike Crossings, was recorded for Columbia records, where Miles Davis was signed at the time, and the label on which Bitches Brew was recorded. The gatefold artwork here has two black men dancing in the foreground, both donned in unusual clothing with long white hair. Behind them are here are the silhouettes of three horse-like animals with the bodies resembling a starry sky – behind them is a South American-like pyramid (more South American iconography, that of Machu Picchu, can be seen on the cover Hancock’s 1974 album Thrust ). The upper right of the artwork features a humongous moon. The back boasts a gargantuan floating Buddha head, sun rising behind it, with a black man resembling a shaman pointing to a large flying necklace in the foreground. A comparison can be drawn between Sextant and Davis’ Live Evil ( Live Evil (back) ) , which features (at Davis’ request) Klarweinart’s representation of life on the front, and evil on the back. From the Mwandishi period on Afrofuturism imagery has been a main stay on Hancock’s albums including: Thrust (1974), Magic Windows (1981), Head Hunters (1973), Future Shock (1983), Flood (1975), Man-Child (1975) Dis Is Da Drum (1994), and The Solid Steel Interview (2002), which appears to be venetian-blind-like collage of Hancock’s Afrofuturistic imagery on previous albums. In an interview with Christopher Porter, Hancock spoke about the Afrofuturistic imagery on his 2001 album Future 2 Future:
Future 2 Future’s cover, which shows a chest-on-up photo of the keyboardist, doesn’t have overt Afro-futurist elements, as Hancock explains, but they’re there. “[I’m wearing] a type of raincoat, but because it’s plastic and transparent, a little bit, it gives an illusion that there’s something futuristic about it, like a space suit.” Song titles such as “Black Gravity,” “Ionosphere,” “Alphabeta” and “Virtual Hornets” help nudge the vibe toward black sci-fi, and the techno-spiritual theme is spelled out on the 33-second voiceover cut “Wisdom,” as Hancock says: “It states, ‘Knowledge corresponds to the past; it is technology. Wisdom is the future; it is philosophy.’ I don’t want to be a slave to the technology. I don’t think any of us want to be a slave to the technology.”
The years following Hancock’s stint with Davis reveals the budding growth of Hancock’s musical identity as a leader. Hancock’s willingness to explore themes of space, electronics, and Africanism resulted in a bold music that foreshadowed Hancock’s ability to stay relevant to society at large while simultaneously producing music of serious intent, forethought, and value. The Mwandishi ensemble’s musical precursors are found in the works of Davis and Ra yet their output is entirely unique. Though Mwandishi never enjoyed a noteworthy audience, this period was a catalyst for Hancock’s musical identity and fostered relationships that would usher in Hancock’s legendary solo career. Additionally, the Afrofuturistic imagery that has touched the majority of Hancock’s albums covers began with his exploration of these themes in 1972. Likewise, Hancock’s audacious musical vision combined with the pioneering work of Gleeson proved to be an early and remarkable foray into electronic music that would have permanent influence on Hancock’s career.
After the break up of Mwandishi in 1973 Hancock returned to playing the synthesizer himself, yet he revisited Gleeson’s San Francisco studio, A Different Fur, to record parts of his next album, Head Hunters, which made Hancock a household name, arguably because of the iconic synthesized bassline on “Chameleon.” Ultimately, this “kind of avant-garde period” set the stage for, and influenced, many of Hancock’s most significant and financially successful musical endeavors from Head Hunters, to “Rockit,” Possibilities, and River: The Joni Letters. Hancock’s visionary creation of Mwandishi’s aesthetic constitutes the beginning of widespread use of synthesizers in jazz and the brink of Hancock’s unique and undeniable musical identity.
Felleze, Kevin. Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion (Refiguring American Music). Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
Garvey, Marcus. Ed. Amy Jacques-Garvey. Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey. The Journal of Pan African Studies, 2009. http://www.black-matters.com/books/Marcus-Garvey-Phil-and-Opinions.pdf
Tamarkin, Jeff. “Herbie Hancock: Energy in the Moment. The Legacy of Herbie Hancocs Mwandishi Album.” JazzTimes September, 2010.
Taylor, T. D. Strange sounds: Music, technology & culture. New York: Routledgem, 2001.
Porter, Christopher. “Herbie Hancock: Ancient to Future.” JazzTimes September, 2002.
Oppermann, Derek. Wearing A Really Different Fur: How Patrick Gleeson Introduced the Synthesizer to Herbie Hancock and changed jazz in the process. Red Bull Music Academy, http://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2015/05/patrick-gleeson-feature. May 5, 2015.