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Herbie Hancock - Mwandishi CD (album) cover


Herbie Hancock


Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.12 | 87 ratings

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siLLy puPPy
4 stars The 60s was a busy time for child prodigy HERBIE HANCOCK. After getting his feet wet in the jazz world with Donald Byrd, it took him no time at all to be noticed by the greatest bigwigs in the industry. Miles Davis, arguably one of the greatest jazz talents ever to have roamed the planet, snatched HANCOCK up at the tender age of 23 and placed him as a major part of his Second Great Quintet. HANCOCK remained with Davis throughout the decade and although he was catering to Davis' every musical whim, was carefully taking cues in many ways and soaking in his masterful tutelage like a sponge. Despite having released a great number of albums during his stint as keyboardist-in-chief on such classic albums ranging from "Seven Steps To Heaven" all the way to "In A Silent Way," HANCOCK himself hadn't really come of age on his own until he got to his "Fat Albert Rotunda" album where he seemed to have found his inner voice and took his own path down jazz-funk-fusion alley.

Despite having found his way, he hadn't quite found his identity, a plight that many African-Americans have faced across many the ages having no lineage records from where exactly their DNA had emerged but rather adapting to the strange new land in which they were brought generations ago. Around the late 60s, HANCOCK was also coming of age as an individual after having conquered the musical arenas a decade prior. This is the period when he adopted a Swahili alter-ego named MWANDISHI, a concept that blossomed like African violets after a series of gentle nourishing rain showers until the idea for a new musical direction became eminent. Once the great MWANDISHI was unleashed, there was no stopping him and no looking back. What became a new identity fruitfully gelled into an entire trilogy of musical innovation that to this very day remains some of HANCOCK's most mesmerizing and complex musical output of his entire career.

After shedding his "Watermelon Man" persona which he had worn since his debut "Takin' Off," HANCOCK changed gears from the Saturday morning cartoon subject matter of "Fat Albert Rotunda" and transmogrified into a deep contemplative form of spiritual jazz that took the listener along for the ride of HANCOCK's own inner journey into the unknown and beyond. However to pull this miraculous metamorphosis off convincingly HANCOCK reconfigured his entire band make-up with all new members with the only returning member Buster Williams donning the new persona Mchaezaji. Likewise, the new set of six musicians would also adopt names from their respective lineages. While most were of African descent, Nicaraguan conga and timbale member Jose Areas would become Chepito and the appearance by Ronnie Monstrose stayed in his already Euro-penned appellation.

The first album of the trilogy is logically titled MWANDISHI with an album cover of a self-reflecting (inner and outer) HANCOCK in chromatic aberration pondering the existential quandaries of the universe. The album contained three lengthy tracks that focused on free form collective improvisation that utilized extremely complex and unusual time signatures with a particular emphasis on HANCOCK's unique Fender Rhodes piano playing which continued the ties from the most experimental Miles Davis albums of the era, however despite the obvious ties to the world of Davis, HANCOCK makes MWANDISHI his own in every way, shape and irregularly laid out form. This would become a trend that would only magnify on the subsequent "Crossings" and "Sextant" albums. As HANCOCK himself stated "So much of Africa has been squeezed out of black America, and we're taking a look at ourselves and recognizing our heritage."

And with that emphasis on self-reflection, the very first track "Ostinato (Suite For Angela)" is dedicated to Angela Davis and provides the most percussive and easily digestible track on the album with a strong ostinato bass groove providing the backbone for a series of unusual time signature deviations. The track in its conga rich and percussively prominent domain delves into bizarre mixes of 15/4 meters followed by 4/4, 7/8 every other variation in, between and around. This is the only track to feature both Chepito and Ronnie Montrose on guitar. Despite the free form jams into extreme complexity, the track flows as smooth as silk. The second track "You'll Know When You Get There" is more of a divine heavenly journey into the ethers and into the clouds. While the track is over ten minutes in length, it is followed by the similarly sounding 21 plus minute "Wandering Spirit Song." Both tracks emphasize more free form approaches with less rhythmic structure and more ethereal floatiness. They display HANCOCK's mastery of extensive use of tension and release where the tensions build slowly as the instrumentation increases only to find resolution with HANCOCK's use of sustained synthesized chords. In some ways, this album reminds me of some of the post-rock of the 21st century in how it provides a blueprint for that style.

MWANDISHI was the album that proved HERBIE HANCOCK was one of the true originals in the entire jazz-fusion scene of the early 70s. The concepts, musical compositional approach and instrumentation were strange new amalgamations of musical creativity unheard before and carried out with the most free form precision outside of the alien world of Sun Ra. After hearing the more dynamic following albums "Crossings" and "Sextant" it may be hard to appreciate the genius of this first installment in the MWANDISHI trilogy in the context of its era, but it is not too difficult for the attentive listener to pick out the subtle details which makes the album stand out amongst the crowd of its day. While personally MWANDISHI may be my least favorite chapter in the trilogy, it is nevertheless an essential prerequisite for appreciating the long lasting jazz-fusion that HANCOCK would pump out that led to his more funkified "Headhunters" days. Not only a landmark of jazz-fusion history but an intricately gorgeous album in all its free form glory. The beauty of MWANDISHI is that it does not discard HANCOCK's past but rather incorporates the many chapters of his musical career and pushes them into entirely fresh musical arenas.

siLLy puPPy | 4/5 |


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