Perfect Sound Forever

Hancocks, Headhunters, and Hendersons

Three Slices of Fusion After Miles
by Mark S. Tucker
(September 2006)

The effect Miles Davis had on modern music is incalculable. He possessed not only an ultra-refined intelligence in his approach to jazz but a talent that still defies analysis. That's the way of genius. The product of a shockingly bigoted culture, he carried the wounds of a brutal socialization on his sleeve throughout his entire life. Though this was highly regrettable in innumerable ways to both artist and audience (Miles loved to keep his back to his fans), but it also provided a rather unique impetus in aesthetic motivation. Not only did the trumpeter take up boxing as a sport, an exercise, and a potential necessity against the carnage he saw inflicted on black Americans daily, he carried that pugnacity into the marketplace and concert hall, defying reigning wisdoms, refusing to leash his talent to charts and popular desire. The effects of his "Bite me!" attitude are still being felt.

Davis was also charismatic. Oscar Wilde wrote of feasting with panthers and the notion has stuck in the literary consciousness, referring to the notion of overcivilized pink-boy norms trotting alongside the barely understandable agents of primal forces roaming amongst us, those who fleer at the very idea of subordination on any level, exerting a strange magnetic charm alongside chaotic insights, portals to the wellsprings of individualism and creativity. Artists especially, who work lifelong with this - indeed it's their coin of passage - dwell closest to the fount, a muse wrapped in glowing alleyway tatters. This occasions one of two outcomes: 1) the sourcepoint becomes vampirized into impotence by artistic seekers or 2) the seeker allows exterior elements to suffuse him with inspiration. Davis never was anyone's victim, nor was he shy of going to the fount. To guarantee the transmissions would not be tampered with, he took firm undisputed control and forced the mass mind to bend to his will, thus spawning one of the most prodigious outfalls in modernity. Few others can claim such far-reaching effects: John Cage, Philip Glass, Robert Fripp, Louis Armstrong, Brian Eno and maybe a few others.

When he was done with the trad canon, having transmogrified it in myriad subtle and overt ways, Miles eyed the borderlands, finding them manifestly displeasing, then went to work claiming new territory from their confusion. The result was the epochal In a Silent Way, standing as the nexal point for fusion music and containing an incredibly strong cast. Every single player for that date became a major presence in music in the world: Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Joe Zawinul, Tony Williams, John McLaughlin... and Herbie Hancock.

Hancock had been around for a few years, releasing impressive vinyl slabs headed in the direction Miles would crystallize. He'd already penned at least one standard, "Maiden Voyage," and one near-standard, "Watermelon Man," a feat most musicians never get near in a lifetime. These gave new ground to a developing periphery in jazz; his talent couldn't help but be seen and Herbie's LP sales were the envy of peers. Thus, he was invited to become a part of Miles' "second great quintet," the one that succeeded the ensemble with Coltrane and made a rapid impression on critics.

That he would be nabbed by Davis to join the perihelion was as much as inevitable... or was it? Actually, though he'd helped guide the mutating Miles through oceanic changes for a few albums, Hancock was soon ousted from an entourage collapsing while it was peaking. Why? Because, or so it's said, he'd returned late from honeymooning. Hmmm... sounds fishy. Who'd begrudge a man the pleasures of that celebration? Miles? Makes no sense. But Hancock then formed a sextet within his home label, Blue Note, and whatever the real reason for the severance, Miles obviously wasn't terribly unhappy with him, featuring the keyboardist prominently on In A Silent Way, Jack Johnson, and other landmarks.

In fact, though he was not included in the formal release in 1970, Herbie had been in on the Bitches Brew sessions, more potent and seminal a release than its predecessors. The recent box set Bitches Brew: The Complete Sessions - a painstakingly presented issuance that has provoked heart attacks, brain seizures, and other forms of rapt beatitude in aficionados - shows this unambiguously, reviving long-lost tapes. That historic involvement merely stoked the fires of Hancock's attraction to electronics, so his new ensemble dived into what are often called the "Mwandishi LPs." Fat Albert Rotunda is normally cited as the genesis point, but the sound is so foreign to what would eventuate, that we'll appoint Mwandishi as the true kick-off. With appearances by Ronnie Montrose and Santana's Chepitos Area, it was the true precursor for a coming string of slabs, as well as the method for hashing out what was, and what was not, wanted.

Much of trademark standard jazz consciousness was here dropped for core elements that would rise and impress listeners from its vastly improved successor, Crossings, onwards. 'Mwandishi' was Hancock's Africanized cognomen in an era when black rebellion was at a peak, many proponents reclaiming a link to long-gone heritages, so the sobriquet was pasted onto the band. The LP's very satisfying - amongst other things initiating a practice of featuring long drawn-out explorations - but was also a trifle too rock oriented. It's rather hard, after all, to do fusion and leave out jazz or rock, but the flavor of the charts was a trifle owing. Also, the disc held more debts to past modes than was quite wanted; the next would be less so. Montrose, contrary to what might have been expected, is barely noticeable, instructed to merely strum damped chords in a proto-wah fashion, while Areas fit in smoothly. The potential for such a jazz-rock crossover was appetizing to Warner label execs, so, though Mwandishi (1971) wasn't at all a big seller, they gambled on it and okayed Crossings (1972)... until hearing it. Hancock was dropped like a bad habit.

That LP's opener, a side-long tune, "Sleeping Giant," commences with an extended percussive/electronic section centered in drummer Billy Hart (Jabali), all members pitching in with accompanying "skinswork." Hancock's electric piano then zooms down from the skies, incandescing to intro a cast ambling back over to their main axes. Keyboards dominate while bassist Buster Williams (Mchezaji) often seems to be playing an entirely different song - not until the transition, a third of the way into the composition, does he seem to figure out what's going on. Reedsmen Bennie Maupin (Mwile), Eddie Henderson (Swahile... later to become Mganga) and Julian Priester (Pepe Mtoto) step in and blow changes, funk rhythms cooking, until a shift transits into a more contemplative aside that first leashes the bounding energy then releases it. Now it's Hancock's turn to flip out and solo through atonalities. For 25 minutes, "Sleeping Giant" partitions itself while maintaining a glistening atmosphere rooted in the sax and electric piano. Patrick Gleeson appears in a minor capacity at first, playing the recently available Moog synthesizer, but expands rapidly, as soon as the B-side starts and "Quasar" revs into gear. The change is hugely noticeable as otherworldly atmospherics charge up the players. Complementing it all, Hancock drags a mellotron through the final moments.

That level of abstraction obviously didn't appeal to Warners, which had been sleeping while Miles was wowing the scene, so, as said, Hancock and troupe were shown the door. Columbia, Miles' home, had no trouble rolling out the red carpet, immediately putting out Sextant (1973) as a kind of a bitch-slab at their competitor. That LP put Gleeson straight to the forefront, concocting Subotnicky weirdnesses, inducing a robotically metalline sheen, as if in a futuristic but mentally unbalanced dance club. The song order was now reversed: two titles on side one and the lengthy "Hornets" on the flip, one of the band's best ever. Hancock was well into his clavinet and the tempo is suggested by the title. The entire thing sounds like tweaked lounge players, plastered sailors, throbbing machinery, and las insectas locas buzzed on Jose Cuervo's finest. It's also the base Priester would tame down to present again in his next year's ECM Love Love disc, retaining Gleeson as a center point. "Hornets" was engaging, eminently twisted as the entire 19:36 wound its way around the living room. To one corner, influences of the Art Ensemble of Chicago begin to peek out as well.

Headhunters, issued the same year ('73), was notable for three things: personnel changes, an unbelievable re-take on Hancock's "Watermelon Man," and a larger step toward mainstream jazz not untinged of rock influences. It was actually a lynchpin for the end of the Mwandishi period, the start of a side gig with Maupin (along with others who'd all keep the sobriquet once Hancock exited, then move on to further recordings), and the beginning of a continuation of the Mwandishi ideas under semi-new management.

Buster Williams was out, Paul Jackson was in. Harvey Mason replaced Hart and Bill Summers doubled up on percussives behind him. All the African pseudonyms had been shucked and, as might be guessed, the LP was a re-acquaintance with the stabler side of jazz (Mason and Summers would never be freaksters, not in a million years), may even have been a attempt to re-ground everything. Why that might've been necessary isn't clear but probably owed something to an omnipresent awareness of sales over in the dance and soul charts. However, merely the presence of the percussionists, who'd go on to become staples of the mainstream chart jazz scene, guaranteed that much of the outré element would sacrifice itself. The LP's excellent but a step aside from what had been developing. Speedy, bouncy, clav'ed up like a particularly wild Sly outing, Headhunters was thoroughly professional, loaded with chops... but not steeped in the earlier Sisyphean daring, at least not quite so flagrantly.

You may have noticed that all three reeds players took a powder and, if you're an Eddie Henderson devotee, you've an unusual affinity for his Realization and Inside Out LP's. Ever glommed the dates? 1973 and 1974. These were actually Headhunter/Mwandishi LP's transferred to Henderson's name. Realization's line-up is almost exactly the same, tossing in Lenny White on drums, to flank Hart, dropping Priester. While Inside Out deviates a bit more from that, Henderson knew a good thing when he had it and kept to the sonic formula, if not always the personnel, on the LPs succeeding: Sunburst (1975), Heritage (1976), and Mahal (1978). His tone and playing throughout are rich, stylish, and contentedly periphery-oriented. As we'll see a little further on in this article, these sides were the true heirs to the Mwandishi throne, not what Hancock would now emit.

Though it was actually a Headhunters LP according to various music historians, 1974's Thrust carried Herbie's imprint with unmistakable muscle. Again, the Swahili secondary sobriquets were absented - swiftly torpedo'ed, apparently never to be resuscitated - and the emphasis was more than ever on funk. Gleeson was gone and, with him, the impetus for the wild experimentational modes. Those shimmering swaths of lassoed nebulae disappeared and, in their place, lively terran tropicalities sprang up. Anyone familiar with Bill Summers' music will see the influence. On his own, Summers drowns in intolerable clichés but, with Hancock, the percussionist provided zesty embellishments, a constant zoo of beats and rhythms that lifted the tone of the compositions while unfortunately tending to dominate.

But, ya wants da funk, ya gits da funk. Wah Wah Watson took the central theme of Man-Child (1975) as both the Headhunter and Mwandishi bands evaporated. The gig littered itself with sessioneers, and it had become increasingly obvious that Hancock's truest fusion had not only lain in the set-up Mwandishi and burning follower releases, Crossing and Sextant, but had stayed there. After that, the ball had been handed off, via Thrust and Man-Child, to Henderson while Hancock began a slow denouement into the VSOP band, a killer unit but not a fusion try except in the vaguest and most occasional sense. Much later, the hit single "Rockit" would appear (1983), another stab at experimentation and his biggest hit ever but one he wouldn't, and couldn't, sustain. Man-Child, though, took the rampdown of Thrust further along the path, becoming the equivalent of aggressive CTI fare, handwalking the famed sound a step or two towrd the horizon but depending on identifiable fidelities for its success.

The problem was: it wasn't the success desired by those hoping for more progressive attitudes. For one, listening to "Sun Touch," the consumer anticipates Freddie Hubbard's dulcet tones, though he was nowhere near the set, ever just over the skyline, a man who only rarely stepped outside a womb of upper-level neo-trad West Coast Cool playing. For another, in "The Traitor," the rock element pronounced itself clearly, at times calling over to Babe Ruth and their take on jazzed-up fireballs like Zappa's "King Kong." As might be expected, "Traitor" was the most insistently swingin' section of this entire phase.

1976's Secrets collapsed this whole idiosyncratic period, traveling completely to dance floor rhythms, classed-out funk, and CTI grooves. Watson again was a major influence, so much so that, after he left, Hancock tried to venture once more into the field and pretty much came an aesthetic cropper. Secret's lead-off, "Doin' It," was a catchy propulsive repeating hook-song you couldn't help but tap your foot, nod your head, or shake your booty to. Except for Paul Jackson, gone were the innovators, replaced by such disco sweeties as Ray Parker and Kenneth Nash, though the listener can't help but like the LP. No matter how many tinselled whatnots Secrets stole, the players enjoyed their chores, attacking the charts with freshness and vigor. Thus, even now, in the turn of the millenium, the LP hasn't aged; Hancock had shaped a stable of chart steals into fetching ear candy. Fans of Lonnie Liston Smith and similar period jazz/soul/dance/funk cats will not be unhappy here, the provender is directly in that style. After this, though, the well-lauded pianist would recognize the end of his experimentational rope and walk back to the wellsprings, gathering up a titanic quartet, again laying down inextinguishable might as a creative force, reintroducing the public to new staples, rightly tugging the spotlight his way for another chance to bask in its rays.

But that's a story for another time.

Until that moment, we repair to Eddie Henderson's quintet of nearly unknown fusion LP's, chasing the Mwandishi vibe for five delirious years. It should be said from the outset that Henderson may well have aced Herbie at his own game; the comparison's too close to call, good arguments are made on both sides, and, in the end, it hardly matters, but Eddie was prolonging the excellences Hancock had started, with nary a complaint in Heaven or Hell. 1973 saw the first of them, Realization. It's line-up was the Headhunters, Hancock included and with Lenny White backing up Billy Hart on drums, but the writing was almost exclusively Henderson's. Except for one short bridging ditty, the 2:03 "Spiritual Awakening," each of the songs clocked in at eight minutes or more, pure joyous fusion with the trumpeter giving generous solos to Herbie, who wasted not a moment capitalizing on them.

There's an amusing story to Henderson's playing, related by writer and critic R.J. DeLuke: Henderson's parents were friends of Miles Davis and, one day in 1957, the trumpet giant was driving the young Eddie, who'd no idea of the gentleman's stature, around the city, when the boy informed the legend that he didn't play correctly. Miles slammed the car to a dead stop and asked, "What the fuck are you playing?" "Trumpet," was the boy's reply, to which Miles retorted "Yeah, I'll BET you play trumpet!" and drove on. Nonetheless, the older man was, despite his oft-gruff exterior, highly sympathetic to young artists and became a musical benefactor to Henderson, who repaid the debt in and around his own breath-taking style every day. The LP is festooned with beauty, irreverence, risks, bizarreties, and just about every device and mode a trumpeter might indulge. While much of the fusion genre is either blown-out jazz or progged-up rock, some splinters are spacey and cross-global, the lattermost of which Henderson cleaved to. In "Anua," one hears middle Eastern influences clearly, though not pre-eminantly. Gleeson likewise prefers a simultaneously up-front presence peppered with marvelously discreet offshoots, riddling the cut with keening frequencies from the ends of the solar system as Maupin's flute occupies another pew in the fore and, three-quarters of the way through, reminds us of Thijs van Leer, from the eclectic rock group Focus.

Hancock remained to the close of Henderson's Inside Out (1974), as did most of the crew, with Eric Gravatt taking up the bass and Bill Summers in on congas. The cover reversed the theme from universal to earthly, trading a snap of a nebula for a stratosphere-high photo of an arid section of Earth, retaining the theme of distance at least. In many ways, the music followed suit, Maupin's favoring of the stritch, a mid-East horn with a shrill upper register, arabesqued the gig even more profoundly than the last outing. This time, there were three short songs, four long ones. Gravatt's bass is extremely muscular, at times John Wetton-ish (a la King Crimson's Lark's Tongue), throughout the album, lead-guitar-ish in the funky title groove, weighting it supernaturally into the Earth's crust. Henderson skips and skitters far above, imbued with terrene energies but determined to paint the skies in fascinating hues. Maupin book-ends him, alternating 'twixt reeds, winds, and horns, wailing out some of the best licks of his illustrious career.

In '75, the trumpeter switched from the adventurous Capricorn label over to the more jazzily established Blue Note, shedding many of the Headhunters and much of the spacey composing. George Duke replaced Hancock, Alphonso Johnson joined Buster Williams on bass, Harvey Mason appeared with Hart, and Bobby Hutcherson supplied marimbas. The spaciness may have receded but the intensity of the music didn't; in fact, all gravities increased exponentially on Sunburst. Henderson gave the most dynamic accounting of himself yet in the opening tune, "Explodition," a driving, propulsive cut written by the new keyboardist. Though Gleeson was now gone, Duke made up for the absence of both him and Hancock while Maupin's vigor filled up whatever other spaces might've been left open. From the start, it was way beyond obvious the lid had been pulled back to show the sparkling golden jam residing inside.

Mike Mandel had been creating George Duke's same riffs over in Larry Coryell's Eleventh House and the similarities were many between the two bands. The 70s were in high gear, exploration was encouraged. George was welcomed many places and would roam hither and yon before later settling into an unsatisfying solo string that closed out his career. Here, he participated in, and lent huge energies to, an effort that took Henderson places he'd never quite been, exhiliratingly so, in a single LP that would thereafter affect his output.

But Duke was restless and moved on, letting Patrice Rushen occupy his seat in Henderson's band, a keyboardstress who achieved rather high marks in jazz waters for a brief period, then pretty much disappeared. In Heritage (1976), almost everyone had departed and the succeeding influx included Mtume (perc), Headhunter Paul Jackson (bass), another Headhunter, Mike Clarke, on drums, and Hadley Caliman (reeds and winds). The energy significantly ramped down - that's how huge an influence Duke had been - but the funk remained. Now, though, it blent with a return of Realization's spaces and philosophical profundities, Rushen's pastoral keys sketching in bright summer days and lazy afternoon sunsets. The A-side of these sessions showed Henderson mostly mellowed again but the B-side would change that. Bennie Maupin, however, especially in "Time and Space," blazed as brilliantly on both sides, folding Ferguson and Shorter into his own style. It was now four LPs into Henderson's torch-carrying for the Headhunters and the quality was as high as on the very first day, stimulating and magnetic, bringing all past manners into one pot.

Mahal (1978) brought the circle to a close by reuniting most of the Headhunters along with cats like Hubert Laws and Ray Obeido (a guitar once more amongst the 'Hunters!). Much had happened in the intervening years, so the finale was a cross-pollination of what everyone had been pursuing, clearly neon-inflected with the inner-city downtown sound that was coming more and more into vogue, and almost as strong with overtures of disco.

With "Amoroso," Henderson embraced Freddie Hubbard's vibe once again, beautifully erasing the sometime sharper corners of his playing. Maupin had even written Gil/Bill Evans-ish big band charts for the song. The release was exceedingly pleasant but not the prime introspective meditation its predecessors had been. The Headhunters had run their course in all their incarnations with this LP. The curtain rang down when "Ecstasy" clicked off, nominatively expressing the sentiment many had for the well-painted history of this ensemble. In fact, it was the disco element which would prove the most providential. In the sort of completely unexpected and bizarre fluke most players can only hope and pray for, Henderson enjoyed a rather strange stroke of extended luck: his latest sides were accidentally played by Brit DJs at 45 rpm, instead of the proper 33. Though the mistake made the trumpeter cringe, "Prance On" particularly caught on with the disco scene in Europe and added measurably to his prestige and fortunes, to this day lionizing him in dance hall annals across the Atlantic.

Many didn't catch that last extension suite of LP's, though the discs enjoy re-issuance every so often, and one can't much blame 'em: it's a big market with lots of side streets and glittering lights, easy to get lost in and easier still to never even see much of. Nevertheless, the releases were mostly missed because people weren't quite paying attention. The situation has gotten worse, what with the incredibly large realm music-lovers must survey when hunting down items on the Net, but the LP's and CD's can be had, if one looks hard enough. They're worth the effort and the entire disjunctured run should be re-pressed in one big package. Fat chance of that happening, though... on the other hand, what if they should uncover a trove of gems laying about unused, as in the Miles collections? Oh man!

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