Kronomyth 5.0: SILENT KNIGHT. This is an ambient/classical/jazz album recorded in between Joe Zawinul’s brief but brilliant stint in the Miles Davis group and the formation of Weather Report. It’s in line with his work from the period, a kind of continuation of the ambient jazz introduced on In A Silent Way (1969), recorded with a large ensemble cast similar to Bitches Brew (1970) and featuring future Weather Report co-founders Miroslav Vitous and Wayne Shorter. Although it didn’t change the direction of jazz like Silent Way or Bitches Brew, and nothing on here is quite as lovely as “Orange Lady,” Zawinul is an important milestone in the career and development of Joe Zawinul, one of the great visionary keyboardists of the 20th century. Conceived as a tone poem of sorts, the album contains five songs that have deep, personal meaning to Zawinul, including a return to “In A Silent Way,” here presented in its original form with the introduction intact. In describing this music, I keep returning to the protogenesis of a new world. It’s matter in movement, the death and rebirth of stars and planets in a strange, new galaxy of sound. Yet this is also sentimental music in many ways; in earlier attempts at this review (I often go through multiple intros before I find the right mood), I had cast Zawinul as a science-fiction sentimentalist. He’s an intrepid explorer with a backpack of childhood memories slung over one shoulder, and perhaps it’s that dual residency in the past and the future that allows him to see everything as alien. As for the supporting musicians, they’re only chess pieces to a point, or colors on a palette from which Zawinul is free to paint. In other words, the exciting things that might have happened in an open collaboration between Zawinul and Herbie Hancock don’t happen here. Zawinul’s creation is closed to the idea of chaos in that sense; it’s a controlled experiment and Zawinul is the lone mad scientist in a room full of high-ranking henchmen. At the time of its release, Zawinul charted respectably but was overshadowed by Bitches Brew and forgotten in the wake of Weather Report. It’s an album ripe for rediscovery, especially if your tastes lean toward the aforementioned albums, ambient composers like Brian Eno and Harold Budd, or the free jazz experiments of John Coltrane.
This elpee was a source of speculation for years, as I wondered what such a serendipitous summit of ivory merchants might sound like together. Apparently, I am a rube. This is simply a compilation of old and, in most cases, previously released material cobbled together to make a buck off of inexperienced jazz-tasters like, well, me. The selections are culled from Atlantic’s vaults: a pair each from the debuts of Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, two selections from Ron Carter’s Uptown Conversation (Atlantic didn’t have the rights to any of Hancock’s solo material) and two unreleased tracks featuring three-quarters of John Coltrane’s band that date from the My Favorite Things sessions. The goal here, I guess, is to sample and compare the pianists’ different styles, but you’d really want a different platter to pick from. The album seems to get progressively difficult as it moves along. Jarrett is fluid and gentle, Corea plays in terse bursts of sound, Tyner is a torrent of notes and Hancock plays the willing accomplice to Carter’s artier explorations. I was only familiar with the Corea songs going into this, and they did sound different to me; the liner notes allude to a remix by Lew Hahn, so I’ll have to do a little more digging into that some day. Except for “This Is New,” everything here features the bass/drums/piano trio format, which always gives the piano plenty of room to breathe. You can hear that each pianist has their own distinctive style, but these styles would change over time, so comparing them here is pointless. Surprisingly, Atlantic re-issued this compilation on compact disc so a new generation can now experience the magic of being suckered into a star-studded compilation of stale treats.
I’m a sucker for program music, even when the pretense to a program is pretty flimsy, as it is here. Without the concept of Alice In Wonderland to tie things together, The Mad Hatter would simply be another of Corea’s eclectic jazz samplers from the late Seventies. But by giving the pieces themes (e.g., “Tweedle Dum mournfully recalls the beauty of his distant past”), Corea affords us a wider window into the music than might otherwise exist. Having gazed at these songs intently on a half dozen occasions, I’d proclaim The Mad Hatter one of my favorite Corea albums from this (or any) period. The music ranges from moogy mind candy (“The Woods”) to classical jazz hybrids (“Tweedle Dee”) to Latin-inflected jazz (“Dear Alice”) to a blowin’ quartet of the straight stuff (“Humpty Dumpty”). The same fare you’d find in mixed amounts on a lot of Corea albums, but The Mad Hatter stands taller than a Secret Agent or Tap Step. In fact, next to My Spanish Heart, this is the ‘70s Corea album closest to mine (not including RTF). The reason is the quality of the material; Corea has mined these forms many times, but rarely have they sounded so good. Gayle Moran’s voice (which I usually have to brace myself for) works very well in this setting, whether propped up against the strings at an angle on “The Trial” or soaring in and out of “Dear Alice” as if she’s always been there. Even Chick sounds more inspired than usual, building a palpable setting for “The Woods,” blending his piano perfectly into the potentially daunting number of players assembled for some of these pieces. From the rest of the cast, the rhythm section of Steve Gadd and Eddie Gomez is superb, and Joe Farrell is always a pleasure to hear. Herbie Hancock also appears on Fender Rhodes for the closing “Mad Hatter Rhapsody,” but to my ears it just sounds like so much noodling at first, improving only when the distortion is turned down. In the end, the story of The Mad Hatter really isn’t important; think of it as a nice package that makes you want to find out what’s inside. If you enjoyed the confections contained in My Spanish Heart, The Mad Hatter holds more of the same.
Kronomyth: DA BEST OF DEFUNCT. In the second half of the Seventies, Herbie Hancock put most of his energy into advancing the state of jazz/funk in the world. Initially (i.e., Headhunters), Hancock’s exploration of funk led to one of the more exciting musical adventures in modern music. Over time, however, the experiment began to feel formulaic as Hancock moved his experiment from the laboratory to the dance floor. This compilation provides a brief summary of a very fertile period that included several crossover hits, all of which are included here. You’ll find the insidiously funky “Chameleon” from Headhunters, the lovely jazz/funk hybrid of “I Thought It Was You” from Sunlight, the epic “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” from Man-Child and the indestructible “Doin’ It” from Secrets. Also included here are two tracks from Hancock’s most recent effort, Feets Don’t Fail Me Now: “Tell Everybody” (here presented in its disco mix version) and “Ready Or Not” (replaced by “You Bet Your Love” in the UK, where it was a Top 20 hit). FDFMN found Hancock shifting toward disco music, which has not endeared it to music critics, although there’s little question that Hancock elevates the medium even if the sum result seemed like slumming to some. Although Hancock did release a few more disco albums into the new decade, their achievements are superseded by what’s here. When this compilation was released on CD in the 80s, digital technology was perceived as its own value-add, and so Columbia simply re-issued it with the same six tracks. The decision not to expand on this in the last 25 years speaks to a cooling interest in Hancock’s funk phase. The Best of Herbie Hancock remains a good, succinct entrypoint into one of Hancock’s most creative (if least understood) periods.
Kronomyth 29.0: FUNKENSTEINOWITZ. Monster is another of Herbie Hancock’s funk/disco albums. This would usually be where I begin to denigrate disco as an inferior medium for a man of his stature, but I gots a booty like everybody and sometimes it needs a good shaking. Most of the Miles contingent sacrificed a few albums to the gods of the dance, and few of them are done better than Monster. Hancock assembled an impressive arsenal of electronic keyboards, including one of the earliest appearances of the Clavitar (a combination keyboard/guitar, which you can hear put to good use on “Don’t Hold It In”). The album is also notable for appearances by Carlos Santana and Santana vocalist Greg Walker. Every track on Monster has vocals (Hancock mercifully keeps to his keys), with guests Bill Champlin, Gavin Christopher and a returning Oren Waters each taking a turn. The rest of the band is pretty much a pick-up from his last (Sheila Escovedo, Wah Wah Watson, Freddie Washington, Ray Parker Jr.) with the new addition of Alphonse Mouzon on drums. While the album was a commercial success (half of its songs were issued as singles), there are some who would tell you that Monster is merely commercial product (in fact, I used to be one of those people). Yet the truth is that anything made out of plastic with a universal price code is product. Hancock’s interest in disco, funk and rock is legitimate, and Monster has a lot to offer musically, from the Latin crossover of “Saturday Night” (reminiscent of Chick Corea) to the intelligent funk of “Go For It” (which anticipates acts like Was Not Was). It’s obviously not the first Herbie Hancock album you need to own, but don’t let those jazz snobs scare you away from Monster. If you’re interested in hearing Hancock in a disco/funk/rock setting with vocals and guitars (and the clavitar), go for it.
Kronomyth 11.3: COLLEC2BL. There are days when I’m convinced the United States hasn’t contributed anything to the world except for jazz and a few good books of poetry. Where the former is concerned, we can boast an embarrassment of riches, as evidenced by this unreleased session from the 60s featuring Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Joe Chambers and Cecil McBee. Recorded in the summer of 1965 (six months after the stunning Speak No Evil), Etcetera is the only of Shorter’s Blue Note recordings to feature McBee on bass. The session is otherwise notable for an energized reading of Gil Evans’ “Barracudas” and four Shorter originals including “Indian Song” and the title track. In the company of the official Blue Note releases, Etcetera falls somewhere beside and perhaps slightly below Adam’s Apple. It’s not as adventurous as the concept albums (Juju, Evil, Eye) nor as meticulously crafted. What’s here are some very solid ideas (“Etcetera,” “Penelope”), but those looking for a showcase of Shorter’s talents will be disappointed. Miles could get away with being understated or even invisible. Shorter doesn’t have that kind of gravitas (yet), and I kept wishing for the saturated sound of a quintet or for Shorter to simply show up with a spectacular solo. Instead, Hancock emerges as the lead soloist on this session. While the playing on here is of too high a caliber to languish in an archival vault, you can understand why Blue Note waited to release it. This isn’t the meticulous Wayne Shorter who scored everything note by note, or the perfect meshing of movable parts built by master machinists. The songs on Etcetera lack the lived-in feel that more time or familiarity might have given them. Given the amount of talent present plus the ratio of Shorter’s Blue Note recordings relative to the interest in them, many will find this nigh irresistible and will be rewarded accordingly. It is not, however, a lost treasure, but rather an artful addendum. [Note that most of this material appeared on the earlier Japanese (and later US) release, The Collector.]
Kronomyth 35.0: SHOCK A KHAN. You wake up one morning, wash your face, turn on the idiot box and find that the revolution is not only being televised but choreographed to disembodied legs. Such was the Future Shock that audiences encountered in 1983 when Herbie Hancock and Material released this revolutionary, revelatory record. Future Shock didn’t just reboot Herbie Hancock’s career, it pressed the reset button on music. If you’d been watching Bill Laswell and Material, you knew they were fomenting revolution with their brand of dub, punk and funk. With Hancock, Material now had a hero for their platform, one who brought extensive jazz/funk credentials to the movement. The result is one of the most important (if not the most important) Material collaboration/mutation. True to its name, Future Shock felt like something from the distant future: sounds and styles collided, scratching turntables gave way to fluid jazz passages, computers shared space with sacred drums, and underneath it all was Laswell’s bass, grooving to its own inner drummer. Some of this isn’t far removed from Hancock’s earlier funk and fusion forays (e.g., “Future Shock,” “TFS”), but most of it represents a new journey for the jazz titan. “Rockit,” “Earth Beat” and “Autodrive” sound like nothing else in his catalog (or anyone’s catalog, for that matter). Jazz has always been an inclusive art form, but Hancock and Laswell took the doors off the hinges on this album to squeeze as many new ideas as possible into its accommodating parlor. Hard to believe that Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Gals” was the inspiration for this, since the one is a one-dimensional novelty (albeit a brilliant novelty) and the other a nova in the annals of popular music. Hancock and Material repeated the experiment the following year with Sound-System; both records remain remarkably fresh thirty years on.
Think this shocking sequel is immaterial? Then maybe you never had the stomach for the future. Not launching another “Rockit” into the airwaves would be like shutting down the space program after the first moonwalk. Sound-System continues the revolutionary reinvention of music introduced on Future Shock: a wild post-modern mix of mechanical beats, electronic sounds, funk, jazz and rock. What Hancock and Laswell had created with Future Shock was a marvelous melting pot of music that connected jazz with the cutting edge of club mixes. Sound-System puts more into the pot, from African pop (“Junku”) to Santana-styled Latin fusion (“Karabali”). A good half of the record is Rockit Redux, including the singles “Hardrock” (which features a rock guitar lead) and “Metal Beat.” But the real ear-openers on here are “Junku” and “Sound System,” which bring the exotic sounds of Foday Musa Suso’s kora into a post-modern landscape of cut-and-paste sounds and club mixes. As if to take a break from the revolution, Hancock returns to the soul/funk of his late ‘70s work with a cover of Timmy Thomas’ obscure single, “People Are Changing,” slyly underscoring how far music (and the world around it) has changed. If Sound-System defies easy categorization (and it certainly did in 1984), Hancock has labored to break down the walls that would contain jazz into a single box. He embraced electronic keyboards and funk/dance before his contemporaries and remains fearless in his pursuit of personal fusion with the world around him. The art of mixing has seldom found such an elevated platform, and students of the style would do well to sit at the foot of Sound-System and Future Shock and learn from an early master (Bill Laswell). In 1999, the disc was digitally remastered and the extended remix of “Metal Beat” appended.
Another case of my napping during the revolution, as “Rockit” and “Close (To The Edit)” changed the way people looked at music and I looked at the grass grow. “Metal Beat” appeared in the second salvo, part of a calculated attack that exploded the conventional conceptions of where music ended and studio editing/effects started, all one notion under the groove. (Ho-hum. It was never a revolution I had any skin in anyway.) The B side, “Karabali,” is more interesting, like Santana in Africa. Of course, we’ve gone through the grain-of-salt speech already, so you can file my forays into jazz as clueless in wonderland. To atone, let me turn you on to www.jazzshelf.org, where you’ll find real genuine insight into jazz music.
You know, these Wayne Shorter albums are more trouble than they’re worth. The tantalizing traces of Weather Report hold my attention initially, but then I start drifting off and, by the time the song is over, I’ve forgotten everything that came before it. So I go back and listen to it again, telling myself that this time I’m really going to pay attention, and the same thing happens. I had a similar experience with Atlantis. In fact, I had to listen to Atlantis again just to compare it to Joy Ryder, since I’d completely forgotten what that album sounded like. By the time Atlantis was over, Joy Ryder seemed a distant memory, so back it went on the turntable, ad infinitum. Both albums have songs that I enjoy each time I hear them, in this case “Joy Ryder” and the vaguely Oriental “Cathay.” Just to make sure it wasn’t a case of reaching a Shorter saturation point, I tried listening to side two first. “Joy Ryder” and “Cathay” still came out on top (and the languid processional “Causeways” simply doesn’t make for a strong opening track). Though the players have changed since Atlantis, the instrumentation stays about the same (a carryover from the bass/drums/keyboard/synth sound of Weather Report). Shorter isn’t a flashy soloist by design on Joy Ryder, moving into the background much as Miles Davis had done at this stage in his career, his presence felt primarily in guiding commentary and countermelodic lines that underscore some new wrinkle in the arrangement. There are still moments when he flashes his superlative skill, as on “Over Shadow Hill Way” (which I’m listening to right now and will invariably forget in five minutes), but Shorter the arranger/leader is interested in hearing the music from the talented group he’s assembled, and Shorter the saxophonist doesn’t care if he blows you away with a solo or not. If I give this album a slight nod over Atlantis right now, I reserve the right to withdraw it when Joy Ryder is over. It does strike me as less lyrical and more angular than I expected, perhaps a better companion to the Weather Report story for its edginess and modernism, but lacking the highpoint of a swingout section like “The Last Silk Hat.” And, yes, I had to put that song on again just to remind myself.