[Review] Herbie Hancock: Sextant (1973)

If you thought Crossings was a trip, wait until you enter the uncharted waters of Sextant.

Kronomyth 12.0: Future shock.

The three Mwandishi-era albums are journeys in sound, with Sextant their most far-out journey yet. I remember being startled the first time I heard Crossings and its alien fusion of electronics and jazz, and the same thing happens in the opening moments of Rain Dance. Herbie Hancock and the band have pushed the experimentation of Crossings even further out into space; it’s not for nothing that these albums are called Crossings and Sextant, as Hancock is clearly aware that he is in uncharted waters.

Describing the music of “Rain Dance” is a challenge. My impression was that this is the sort of jazz the HAL 9000 would listen to after smoking whatever the digital equivalent of a joint is (“one, uh, one, um, did I already say one?”). Or if Kraftwerk and Miles Davis got mixed together in some kind of matter transfer mishap. There is a future shock in hearing this music, as the marriage of man and machine seemed inevitable in 1973, leaving the impression of a science fiction symphony. In this new universe of sound, bassist Buster Williams again inhabits his own world.

Hidden Shadows is another synthesis of funk, space and synthesizers, though less outrageous than “Rain Dance.” The treated trumpet playing of Eddie Henderson immediately reminded me of Jon Hassell, and I suspect there was as much an influence of Herbie Hancock as John Coltrane in his music. It’s also really neat to hear the mellotron in a jazz setting, an instrument so alien to jazz that it’s misspelled in the liner notes.

Following the format of the last two records, one song consumes an entire side, Hornets. Buster holds it down with his bass while the band improvises a buzzing garden of sounds including something called the hum-a-zoo (played by Benny Maupin). If “Rain Dance” was jazz for computers, “Hornets” is funk for insects. It’s an interesting place to visit for 20 minutes, but not a song I’d return to often because at its core it’s just a basic funk rhythm with a lot of noise on top of it.

Sextant is an album ahead of its time. It also, I would imagine, went over the head of listeners who never got past the novelty of hearing synthesizers and jazz together. New label Columbia probably wasn’t prepared for the cool reception, although they got their money’s worth with the next album, Head Hunters. Still, the three Mwandishi albums are some of the most fresh and exciting jazz set on vinyl, a period at least as fertile as the modal jazz phase of Herbie’s Blue Note recordings.

Original elpee version

A1. Rain Dance (Herbie Hancock) (9:16)
A2. Hidden Shadows (Herbie Hancock) (10:13)
B1. Hornets (Herbie Hancock) (19:36)

The Players

Mwandishi (Herbie Hancock) (Fender Rhodes electric piano, Hohner D-6 clavinet with Fender Fuzz-Wah and Echoplex, dacka-di-bello, melotron, Steinway piano, hand clap), Jbali (Billy Hart) (drums), Mganga (Dr. Eddie Henderson) (trumpet, flugelhorn), Mwile (Benny Maupin) (soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, piccolo, afuche, hum-a-zoo), Pepo (Julian Priester) (bass trombone, tenor trombone, alto trombone, cowbell), Mchezaji (Buster Williams) (Fender electric bass with wah-wah and fuzz, acoustic bass) with Buck Clarke (congas, bongos), Dr. Patrick Gleeson (ARP synthesizers: 2600 and Soloist). Produced by David Rubinson & Friends, Inc.; recording engineered by Fred Catero, Jerry Zatkin and John Vieira; re-mix engineered by David Rubinson, synthesizer and mellotron mixing by John Vieira.

The Pictures

Cover painting by Robert Springett.

The Plastic

Released on elpee, quadrophonic elpee and 8-track on March 30, 1973 in the US (Columbia, KC/CQ/CA 32212). Reached #176 on the US charts and #3 on the US Jazz charts.

  1. Re-issued on compact disc on July 1, 1992 in Japan (Sony, SRCS 7047).
  2. Re-issued on compact disc on October 22, 1997 in Japan (Sony, SRCS-9338).
  3. Re-issued on compact disc in 1998 in the US (Columbia Legacy, 64983-2).
  4. Re-released on 180g vinyl on April 13, 2012 (Music on Vinyl).

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