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Herbie rides again

Tony Herrington

Last week at East London’s Cafe Oto the new season of The Wire Salon got off to a futurological start with a talk by Adam Harper based on his book Infinte Music: Imagining The Next Millennium Of Human Music-making. In the talk, Adam repeated the book's citing of the music of the nomadic Aka Pygmies of the Central African rainforest as one example of an 'alien genre’ that can point the way towards an infinity of musical possibilities.

(Of course, referring to any indigenous non-Western music as an 'alien genre' is somewhat problematic, as Adam readily admitted, but in this case he seems to be using it to identify highly complex musical forms that arise out of normative social activity – an actually existing practice in many parts of the world, but in post-industrial societies, one which has been annexed from the public sphere by the deleterious forces of the culture industry and therefore rendered alien. Or, as Richard Henderson put it in his Field Recordings Primer in The Wire 168: "What Steve Reich accomplished with elliptical tape loops in concurrent motion on "It's Gonna Rain", the Aka manage to do while walking to work in the morning.")

Towards the end of the subsequent panel discussion, which brought Mira Calix and Nightwave into the debate, Adam took issue with one famous attempt to use this primordial polyphonic sound as a launch pad to the outer limits, dissing Herbie Hancock’s appropriation of it on the remake of "Watermelon Man" on the 1973 Headhunters album.

I was moderating the panel, and over the years have also happened to have spent God knows how many hours traveling the spaceways signposted by Herbie's 70s music. So while such a public diss would usually have had me banging the offending speaker upside the head with my chairman's gavel, on the night I let it pass, as it was an aside at most, and to take issue with it would have carried us way off message. But in the cold light of day such an assessment demands some kind of analysis or response, so...

Where Adam experiences "Watermelon Man" as an inert distillation of an ancient and complex and living communal music, I hear an integrated musical performance riven with tension and currents that run fast and deep. (And if Adam really wanted to make a point about how such an alien genre can be killed stone dead by careless sampling, then citing Deep Forest would have rammed the point home more thoroughly, not to say conclusively.)

Adam wasn't impressed with that album title either (“It's called Headhunters for God's sake!"), but I've always read it as a sly deployment of the kind of militant semiotics that would be mobilised to fuller effect by P-funk and the Hiphop Nation – as in: Headhunters as proselytizers for a new tribal aesthetix, mind expansion for headz, etc.

Like the music on Herbie's previous Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant albums, Headhunters and "Watermelon Man" were the results of a fusion experiment that was itself the product of a unifying Afrocentricism that on the cusp of the 70s was an imperative for many black American musicians emerging from a decade marked by an integrationist civil rights movement on the one side, and the separatist Black Nationalist and Black Arts movements on the other.

Still, Adam's ethnomusicological disgust hits a nerve in one respect, because Headhunters and "Watermelon Man" were also a stark indication of how Africa was an alien zone even for conscious jazzers like Herbie and his group (an indication of how thoroughly slavery had worked its nihilistic designs on the folk memory of an entire people). Admittedly, Headhunters was a step back from the advances of its predecessor Sextant, which, pace Infinite Music, contains a multiverse of sonic variables and alien timbres which has yet to be fully explored and colonised. But the quantum funk was still going on, and the whole thang was just one component in a wider programme to cauterize some of the psychic vandalism inflicted during the Middle Passage, one which asserted an ancient-to-the-future black identity by getting explicit about the African component of a sound that was mapping the pathways to new worlds.

Maybe it's a generational thing. Adam is half my age, and from the perspective of a twentysomething 21st century musicologist it might all sound a bit lumpen and prosaic. But to dismiss it as crass, or even exploitative, is to ignore the music's own temporal-spatial reality and its position within a complex sociopolitical process, one which was further complicated by the fact it was taking place in the context of the mass culture industry. Herbie was signed to Columbia, one of the largest entertainment conglomerates on the planet, with ambitions to follow his labelmate and former employer Miles Davis in breaking out of the jazz ghetto. But following the commercial failure of Sextant, he was under pressure to deliver product that would recoup his label’s investment - which he did: Headhunters shifted more than a million units, which means it landed an alien genre deep inside the collective consciousness of mainstream America with genuine force.

In the mid-90s I interviewed Herbie, when he was staying in the surreal opulence of the Park Lane Hotel overlooking Hyde Park in central London. I'd requested the meeting to talk specifically about that amazing sequence of records he'd produced in the lead up to Headhunters. I was eager to find out what had been going on in his head when he and his group of furthermuckers (© Greg Tate) had retrofitted their instruments with cyborg prosthetix and devised that technologised jazz-not-jazz-almost-funk that felt so harmonically expansive and rhythmically advanced, not to mention mythpoetically charged and quantum physically mysterious. Naturally he was affable and charming and fielded my questions with good grace, but it was ultimately a dispiriting experience. Basically, he wasn't interested, seemingly regarding the music as at best misguided exhuberance, at worst hubristic folly. (The transcript and that of a second interview conducted by phone a few months later were eventually folded into an article, all 7000 words of it, on what became known as the Mwandishi group that appeared in The Wire 174.)

As a musician, Herbie was living a weird dual existence by this point, pushing an airless heritage industry version of the kind of acoustic jazz which characterised his mid-60s breakthrough albums for the Blue Note label, as well as a form of hi-tech industry fuzak so sinisterly corporate that even now it makes James Ferarro's Far Side Virtual sound like Dock Boggs plucking a banjo in a sharecropper's shack (but I suppose that's all part of the conceptual smarts of Ferraro's guerilla hack of a record).

Appropriately for someone who could command such lofty accommodation, he was dressed like the CEO of a Dow Jones listed company just over for a weekend shopping trip to Harrods – his sports jacket, slacks and loafers combo probably cost more than I made in a month (but did he still have all those dashikis and kaftans he used to wear in the 70s, maybe hanging neglected at the back of a closet somewhere in his LA condo? I don't know, I neglected to ask). A friend of Sting, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder, recipient of various Grammys and MTV Awards, his position in the upper echelons of Entertainment USA Inc was secure, and he wasn’t about to rise to the bait of an offay journo from some obscure UK music zine who wanted to know if he'd ever felt like an extraterrestrial (seriously). In the article, it was left to other members of Herbie’s group, trumpeter Eddie Henderson in particular, to articulate the music’s affective power, its alien heat and infinite potentiality.

All of this only encouraged a creeping and somewhat perplexing notion that Herbie had always been the most conservative member of every group he fronted, but had still somehow found himself at the controls of some of the most significant departures in post-war black music, and not just with regard to those early 70s records either

If you know Sunlight's boogie down productions, or the future shock electro of "Rockit", but are hazy on the backstory, check the playlist below.

And wonder what it must be like to be a musician who has this kind of history, but whose reality over the last two decades or more seems to necessitate the denial of a past in which any of it actually happened.

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Comments

I agree that Herbie has been largely in denial of what I would consider his most creatiove phase but at the same time he is still able to deliver even within the framework he operates within. Seeing him live still gives you many moments of transcendence, admitedly a lot less now than at an Mwandishi gig but he still goes to the deepest places at times. It's worth mentioning also that due to his methods of operating in a very mainstream way he can actually take a lot more "normal" people on these strange journeys they would not have been otherwise exposed to.. Which is a priceless thing, really.

Well put, Tony.

I could not have shown the restraint that you did. He would have been taken to hospital with the embarrassing problem of needing the gavel removing from his backside - ha!

Yes indeed, this was / is a much more complex issue than we had time to go into that night! As you suggest, the term “alien” as used in IM applies relative to one's own system or context - the term is more usefully applied to composers like Stockhausen, Harry Partch and Curtis Roads, but hopes to group with them the equal unfamiliarity of complex non-Western styles like Aka / Mbuti / Babenzele polyphony, and Japanese Gagaku etc.

My criticism of Hancock’s cultural appropriation of Aka polyphony was very much in sympathy with this well-researched essay by the ethnomusicologist Steven Feld: http://www.jstor.org/stable/767805 which I can't recommend reading enough if you're able to get access to it. The article includes the Deep Forest example too. Feld is very much against what he sees as the misuse of Mbuti polyphony (though I’m not sure I’d go quite as far as he does in places). But of course, it’s easy to see why Hancock considered his mimesis of the African tribes as a positive move in his context of post-war black music and cultural expression.

Sonically, as much as anything, “Watermelon Man” is drastically reductive with the central African music, shrinking the complexities of its polyphony into a jazz funk 4/4 and pulling apart all the interlocking structures to subordinate them to his own idea of groove. It wouldn’t be entirely amiss to call it stereotyping, in the same vein as eighteenth-century portrayals of Turkish music, or European takes on jazz around the early twentieth century. These were only caricatured reactions to the surface of a different / alien musical style and of the people they represent. Within its own context, yes, “Watermelon Man” ranks among the greatest jams of its kind – but in relation to Mbuti polyphony it’s a bit wanting. Had Hancock wanted to draw a more thorough inspiration from Aka polyphony, he would have gone beyond the surface and sounded a bit more like Ligeti. Granted, the Deep Forest example is much more reprehensible in this respect, since it’s based on concrete recorded samples.

And of course, Deep Forest were white and Hancock had a deep interest in and respect for Black Nationalism, vastly complicating the issue. Do “Watermelon Man” and the title “Headhunters” (full of other connotations, as you say) misrepresent and conjure ugly stereotypes? Or are they productive cultural connections and ironic re-appropriations spanning and even uniting the African diaspora? I really can’t say one way or the other, especially in my context as a classically trained English white bloke born in 1986. It’s clear that where any of us stand in relation to issues of cultural or racial sensitivity, positively or negatively, has changed hugely in the past forty years – a lot of what might have felt wholly positive then can often bring on mixed feelings today. I felt the need to point out the superficial imitation of the rich, unique tradition under discussion, but whether these problems apply depends on who’s listening and what they know, how critically they listen, why they’re listening.

Nice read. Context is everything with that herbie record, after all that was the second time he had recorded it, it was a standard by 73 having passed through the hands of mongo santamaria and so on, their intention was probably to revitalise an old favourite and in doing so, Harvey swung his ass off and bill did the party trick with the beer bottles. Adams reading of it is thought provoking tho.

Having never got the fuss about Hancock, I'm with Adam on this. No riff or melodic hook is too cheap for Herbie and tunes like "Watermelon Man" are shameless plays to the the gallery IMHO - compare that 'tune' (word used advisedly) to sophisticated Monk compositions with a not dissimilar starting point like "Bye-Ya" and "FRiday the 13th" and the difference is obvious. The other issue is of course that HH is a taste free zone who lacks any self-critical faculties. His 2009 tour with Lang Lang (where they performed a hokum re-write of Rhapsody in Blue) was one of the most eye-wateringly embarrassing things I've ever seen in a concert hall. And then there's "Gershwin's World" and his recent rehash of "Imagine", which brought together a load of rock egos (Sting, Tina Turner, Annie Lennox, Christina Aguilera, The Chieftians) to make some nebulous point about the universal language of music. I would sincerely hope that the universal language of music does NOT sound like a multi-tracked version of the daftest song of the 20th century by the self-righteous and the boring...

Jazz for the Alan Partridge mindset!

Pace Adam's comments, relativism is a bit of a dirty word these days, but it's an obvious fact that in the early 70s conditions that prevailed in the Central African rainforest would have been wholly other in relation to the kind of hybrid post-civil rights, post-Vietnam urban milieu occupied by Herbie, and his repurposing of Aka polyphony fit his immediate requirements even as it simplified, or caricatured, the Aka's own reality. To transplant their aesthetic wholesale was not the imperative at that time or place, and needs must, as they say, so later for that, let's first reestablish the channels for dialogue, and once they are opened, then we can start to nuance the conversation, get more sophisticated about it, as hopefully this kind of conversation humbly demonstrates. But I wonder what the Aka themselves thought of it? Has anyone ever asked them? But pace Adam's comments re: Ligeti, I urge him and anyone else to check the clips in the playlist: here, pre-Headhunters, Herbie and his group were generating sounds and making combinations of timbres that were as alien as anything in Atmospheres or Lux Aeterna, or even the Central African rainforest for that matter, AND they kept the polyrhythmic funk going. Adam's citing of Steven Feld is timely too, as his new book, Jazz Cosmopolitanism In Accra, which I have reviewed for the forthcoming March issue of The Wire, is concerned with just these kinds of complex, multilayered diasporic dialogues, and the issue of whether they open productive or reductive channels between Africa and the diaspora. Steven is also big on attentive listening too. He calls it 'acoustemology', knowing the world through sound. There are many parallels between his book, indeed all his work, and Infinite Music. I recommend both highly.

And pace Phillip's comments, I totally agree: as I tried to make clear in the blog, for years Herbie has occupied that showbiz never-never land full of meaninglessly sentimental gestures. But that doesn't detract from the achievements of those early 70s sides, which are still ripe for discovery. Not sure what Alan Partridge would make of 'em tho.

"Not sure what Alan Partridge would make of ‘em tho."

Headhunters was the band Wings could have been?

Really pleased to read this article and good work too. I sympathise with some of PhillipClark's opinions which is why I've always stuck to his records: I've chosen never to see him live. Maybe like a lot of people he just got sentimental with age.

But I think the idea that citing the commercial failure of Sextant as the overriding factor for Hancock's change in direction deems him some kind of sell-out. Here's another angle:

"I began to notice: I'd go to a party somewhere and I'd say, 'Oh, I just finished doing my record.' I'd put it on and it interfered. It was so weird people couldn't talk anymore. So I said, 'Something's wrong.' The only way you could listen to that music was if you sat down and did nothing else and devoted your attention to doing this. It wasn't functional. Who in the hell has the time to sit down and do nothing but listen to music? People listen to music in their car, people put music on when they're doing housework. I said, 'No wonder my records have no sales. Life is hard enough as it is, why should I make it more difficult?'"

Tony, maybe this is what you wanted from him when you met him:

http://www.artistwd.com/joyzine/music/hancock/hancock.php

The circumstances of him being friends of Joni Mitchell are interesting because although they may have met on similar ground (recording with Charlie Mingus), they were moving in very different directions at the time. Combined with 'Mingus' and tracks like The Jungle Line, I don't think Joni Mitchell is confined to the realms of Entertainment USA inc.

The message in Herbie's loafers...

Damn, it seems like it's easy to knock Herbie Hancock, and I can understand why, but just because he's slick, (both now and then) doesn't make him some mindless conduit for other people's ideas.

Before I forget, really interesting post by Liam.

Before I forget, that Richard Henderson line is fantastic.

Anyway, the idea that Herbie always been the most conservative member of every group he fronted is a provocative one, and though I don't agree, it sent me back to Empyrean Isles for mind-fodder. On that LP, Herbie is throwing comparatively old school cornet player Freddie Hubbard into the deep end of abstract layers of chords and modal vamps. According to the liner notes, because of the odd bass/drum/piano/cornet line-up, it was written so that Hubbard was forced into having to play entirely free, thus filling the space. Hancock is the provocateur here. But that's not main point of raising that album. The title Empyrean Isles always suggested some utopian travelogue to me, as does "Canteloupe Island", traced by these abstract and spacious arrangements, and when you dig into it there's a kind of pan-African consciousness about it already. "Oliloqui Valley" surely is meant to be an erstatz swahili name, and it seems to me to echo Olduvai Gorge, the famous rift valley in Swahili-speaking Tanzania, which is, of course, known as the cradle of man, where they found the first human tools two million years ago. Shame about the overplayed tune, but still, I feel these ideas have been circulating in Herbie's music for decades.

Obviously the name Headhunters might seem, I dunno, somewhat corny, but there's a subtle repurposing of the idea of the noble savage going on here. Remember, another album was called Survival Of The Fittest. So there's recurrent references to in Herbie's work to darwinism/cannibalism/states of nature, and somehow I feel there's a awareness of the idea of one form of music 'consuming' the other, an ambivalence maybe, but an awareness that this is what happens anyway, and you may as well do it with some integrity, and do it before white folk do it anyway (which is what happened with Deep Forest). "Watermelon Man" is a track where the initial pygmy figure is slowly swarmed over and consumed by the group moving like a pack of hunters; it consumes it but also subsumes someting of its form like a snake eating a hamster. The following reading is obviously subjective, but to me hearing the track they're playing around and about the original pygmy sample, deliberately trying to give it space, but also strongly imply a different groove. For me it's a masterpiece of letting a sample breathe but slowly pushing it in another direction. It consumes those pygmies, sure, but they die in a damn good cause. There's a similar sort of process with "Rain Dance", where it takes that insane electronic loop and plays around and about it before slowly taking it somewhere else. Herbie's group was amazing at subsuming and digesting other musics.

A tangential observation here too, but a general one, which is that Herbie is fantastic, like with Empyrean Isles, at opening up new spaces and worlds through uses of subtly shifting layers and arrangements. In essence, he's kind of an arranger, really. His piano lines were always, always kind of vamps or modes rather than lyrical at all, isolated points of lights plucked out on the keyboard. He has played _around_ the music for 50 years now. Think about "Chameleon", where the amazing groove really takes off when he is just fooling around with some funky lines and then discovers its easier and funkier to just get the pitchbend and bend it up a whole tone. That's Herbie Hancock's life's work boiled down into one small action – he's about the spaces implied and opened out in the music rather than, say, a more lyrical jazz conception. And that's why "Watermelon Man" works because it's a masterpiece of shifting layers and spaces, a continuum sketched along the groove, and yeah, the groove might initially seem obvious, but it is the groove after all which takes us elsewhere... to Africa, to space, and hopefully both.

Little to add to Derek's fascinating analysis, except to say I did touch on some of this in the original article, talking about the way Herbie used electronics, etc to get away from notes and scales and into tone colours and pure sound textures, but belated thanks to Liam for the link. Actually that's pretty much how Herbie told it to me, which was my point really, that he talked all around the music, discussing the pragmatic circumstances and reasons for the change from Sextant to Headhunters, but he had no interest in getting inside it, in trying to articulate what made it so powerful and unique. In my original article, Herbie told me, "We were like warriors in the avant garde camp [searching] for the deep part of the soul through music," which is something of a deep and meaningless platitude but about as close as he got to any kind of analysis of the music. Still, that's what critics are for I guess. But re: Liam questioning whether the commercial failure of Sextant caused the change in direction in Herbie's music, that is supported by his comments in the article, and in fact the mindset that went with it emerged way before Sextant. Herbie told me that Fat Albert Rotunda (his first post-Blue Note record after he'd signed to Warners) was his attempt to get into "a pop-oriented kind of thing" and that Warners were "looking for hit records", and I quoted a 1975 Down Beat interview with Bennie Maupin, who said, "Warners were going to get him into this thing with Iron Butterfly... They thought he should be into rock." In-a-gadda-da-vida, Herbie!

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