A venture into rhythm and blues – and then the critical response
Here is a little bit of what I have been thinking and writing about Herbie Hancock’s first Warner Brother’s recording, ‘Fat Albert Rotuna’, which began as music for the pilot episode for Bill Cosby’s animated television show. I consider the record really a composite of three different approaches – two of them grounded at least in part in rhythm and blues, one a vehicle for solos and the other R&B vamps; the third is represented by two lushy orchestrated ballads, one featuring acoustic piano.
Please note, again, that these are drafts with much editing and further writing to go. I’ve now moved on to finishing a working draft of the historical narrative for 1972-73.
‘Wiggle-Waggle’, the up-tempo tune with the most solo space, opens in a manner unexpected for an R&B romp. The sounds we hear first may be strummed dulcimer or banjo, resting upon a bed of saxophone and trombone long tones. Floating further above is an echoplexed trumpet figure. At 0:22 a spicy guitar lick is joined by drummer Bernard Purdie’s backbeat and Jerry Jermott’s electric bass. And then the James Brown-like horn section enters (arrangements that may have been on Herbie’s mind map), orchestrated with depth and attention to detail. Just before the one-minute mark, Herbie begins to comp on electric piano. And before we know it, Joe Henderson is off and running with a solo that shows marks of rhythm and blues – rapidly repeated riffs, reaching up for an altissimo held note – all refracted through Henderson’s sound and his knowledge of post-bop. The trumpet solo crafted here by Joe Newman has a more linear, scalar and melodic feel. His tone is beautiful and there is more felt kinship here to Freddie Hubbard than to rhythm and blues, even as he blows over the big band long tones, At 3:10, Newman lands on a high pitched, sustained tone with buzzing vibrato, in synch with another round of supportive band long tones. At 3:24, Hancock’s comping creates a suspended chord holding pattern, as the solo winds down. There is a pause like a sigh.
And after a five second upwardly rising electric piano riff, Hancock is off and running on his own solo. It bears many of the marks of the funky style to appear next on Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Red Clay’ and then on ‘Ostinato (Suite For Angela)’, the opening tune on ‘Mwandishi’, and again later on ‘Headhunters’. These include short call and response phrases, trades between solo lines and repeated left hand chords, momentary thick chordal phrases, tension built as he moves up the keyboard, resolving in an octave tremolo, endless variations on simple melodic fragments, and the ability to land right in the pocket when he wishes…
[Note: The jazz press did not respond positively to this recording, which in some ways was a “one off” and in others, a relatively seamless exploration into how one could meld ideas from hard bop with more popular dance music forms. It is this kind of integration that has often proved so controversial among conventional jazz critics and audiences and which has been a recurring theme in Herbie Hancock’s creative output.]
[In his review, Down Beat writer Jim] Szantor termed ‘Fat Albert’ “Esthetic regression… in the soul-rock-r&b popcorn and onions vein… somewhat akin to a distinguished actor spurning a long-sought Shakespearean role in favor of a TV soap opera….” The main complaint voiced is the lack of improvisational space for Hancock and the horn players. It is true that there are tunes that quite intentionally contain no solos – they are about building a groove – but there are in fact tunes that include substantial improvisation. While Hancock is given credit for solos on the more conventionally jazz-oriented tunes; he “is heard to advantage only on the saving-grace ballads, where, in typical Hancock fashion, he often reworks nearly identical phrases to telling effect.” But what this reviewer misses is the “advantage” that Herbie Hancock precisely seeks in his ability to play funky rhythmic gestures, crafting a multi-layered interplay with the horns and rhythm section, even when the beat structure is straight up rhythm and blues…