Reaching for an emotional core
An aspect of the Mwandishi band that I find the most interesting is how when the group gelled, it’s playing became highly organic. A New York Times review of the album ‘Mwandishi’ considered the manner in which the band extended the intuitive means used by the Miles Davis Quintet to organize improvisation. James Lichtenberg observes of Miles Davis’s discovery: “musicians could play directly off the patterns of emotions…” rather than chord changes. Lichtenberg considers how this could unfold: “What, then, determines the patterns of emotions? The intricate and complex environment in which we are a.living and to which we are all contributing. For example, Hancock describes being alive abstractly as a multilevel web of tensions and reIeases whose source is the energy in the environment. The way his music works is as a carrier of these tensions and releases, in much the same way as an electric cable carries telephone conversations.”
What Herbie Hancock experiences and played an important role in guiding with Miles was a mode of collective improvisation that reached for what I describe in my book about the Mwandishi band as an “emotional core, a moment of psychic knowing, an intuition that transcends any simple description. It is a translation of somatic, emotional, and other human experience into music.”
There was something in the spirit of that period of time in the late 1960s and early 1970s when musical groups were engaged in various forms of open improvisation. Some were associated with the “free jazz” movement and others closer to idiomatic forms. The music was more process driven than chart driven, the music constantly evolving during a performance. Some of the foundational moments take place in the mid-1960s. You find it in the later work of John Coltrane and certainly in Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, but also with Eric Dolphy (with whom Herbie Hancock played while in his early 20s), and in some of Charles Mingus’ more exploratory work. Collective improvisation became a fundamental value for the various groups emerging from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) in Chicago, founded in 1965. The Art Ensemble of Chicago is probably the best-known example.
Miles began to reach for a similar quality of engagement with his Quintet starting around 1965. And that strand continued in the bands that sprung forth from Miles’ playing on and following ‘Bitches Brew’ – in his 1969-70 band with Chick Corea, 1971 with Keith Jarrett, and those that immediately followed. It continues in early Weather Report and in Circle, a band that emerged from the direction that Chick Corea and Dave Holland were taking in Miles’ band, in this case in collaboration with saxophonist Anthony Braxton and Barry Altschul. You can hear it in Wayne Shorter’s wonderfully exploratory ‘Super Nova’, in Miroslav Vitous’ ‘Mountain in the Clouds’ and Josef Zawinul’s ‘Zawinul’. Herbie Hancock plays on the latter two of these recordings. To find out more about the many expressions of open forms and free expression in the free jazz and “creative music” movements, look at Val Wilmer’s book “As Serious as your life: John Coltrane and beyond.” Not enough has been published on this topic.
In all these cases, even when an ensemble is playing a discernable tune, as was generally the case with the Mwandishi band and some of the others, the music unfolds in unpredictable, expansive ways, ebbing and flowing between solos and collective improvisation. Where that goes was unpredictable and at times revelatory. The title of Herbie Hancock’s tune (from which I take the title of my book), “You’ll Know When You Get There” captures nicely this sense of exploration. If you are really playing in the moment, you truly can’t know in advance where things will go. You can only reflect back upon where you went “when you got there,” if at all.
This is a topic that has been on my mind for a long time, but I’m thinking about it this morning because last night I played a trio gig with bassist Christopher Dean Sullivan and drummer Dean Sharp in which we stepped off the charts further than we have recently. The music became far more textural than it had during the past year of playing in club settings (although it had been that way for my trio in other settings in the past). But last night’s improvisations were far more collective than usual, more intuitive, more probing and based on subtle dynamics between the players. I constantly hear these kinds of dynamics while listening to the Mwandishi live recordings.