Listening again to Sleeping Giant
This afternoon, I listened for the first time in about a year to ‘Sleeping Giant’, the suite that comprises the entire first side of the original ‘Crossings’ LP. Listening while driving in the car was the way I first came to know this piece and re-experiencing it in this same way, 36 years after my first time was, well, a trip. I’ve spent most of the year in between listenings writing about a range of topics about the Mwandishi band, in part expanding upon the musical descriptions that I wrote nearly two years ago, including about this suite.
Earlier this afternoon, I spent an hour listening again to the second two of the Norman Connors albums that include Herbie Hancock, Eddie Henderson, and at times, Buster Williams, all recorded between 1973 and 1974. And then I listened to the film soundtrack to “The Spook Who Sat By the Door.” I recently watched the film, having read the novel in high school. Noticing the similarities and differences between the score and, alternately, ‘Sextant’ and ‘Head Hunters’ is pretty fascinating. Maybe I’ll post something about this at some point down the road.
Back to hearing ‘Sleeping Giant’ – listening again, I’m struck by how new and fresh it sounds. The recording is playing in the background yet again as I write now (and this is a different text than what is included in the current version of my book). Each time I listen, even each time today, I notice new elements that I’ve somehow missed in the past. And I’ve listened to this over the years zillions of times. I’ve heard two or three live versions, as well. They are all quite different from one another and of course, due to the post-production and multi-tracking, different from the version released on record in 1972.
Two years ago, this was one of the Mwandishi tunes that I transcribed. At first, this was to have a visual representation to help me think about the music. But this soon turned to my creating my own arrangements of much of the repertoire. The way I came to learn more about this piece and others, then, was by playing it in various trio and solo settings. There’s a solo version for piano with tons of electronics (thus, hardly solo, although I’m the only one playing and its all real time) on my Youtube page:
Its rather different from the original, but I think of it in a similar spirit, which is open to the moment and moving back and forth between abstraction and grooves and everything in between.
Listening again this afternoon, I found the original to be just a marvel. Although the whole piece is nearly a sprawling 25 minutes. But it is sectional and each part is quite different from what precedes and what follows, although they all mesh into a single unit. Herbie Hancock composed the suite with sectional markers, where the band comes together, playing music that he crafted in advance, and these provide both glue and common resting places. Some of the writing is lush and gorgeous, and in other places, inventive and catchy. Its Herbie at the top of his compositional game. As I hear it, there is but one tape splice, at a point where it probably wasn’t at all clear how a transition was going to happen between a deep funk groove and a pastoral lyrical section. In short, although its a bit abrupt, I think that it works.
What drives the piece is the rhythm section, comprised of Billy Hart’s surging, ebbing and flowing drumming, ever intense; Buster Williams searching bass lines, alternately leading and following. His electric bass, with and without fuzz are right on the money, right in the pocket and tight with Hart. And of course, Herbie Hancock is always soloing and always comping. He is the paragon of accompanists here, empathetic to everyone else, yet somehow also in the driver seat, whether formally soloing or not.
The opening multi-layered percussion is simultaneously locked in together all the while somehow simply juxtaposed. And when Billy Hart enters on traps, particularly his sizzling cymbals, the multi-dimensionality of his playing is just startling. The major post-production addition to this section is in the transition into Herbie Hancock’s opening electric piano solo. This is a reversed acoustic piano chord. Now you don’t see it, then you detect it in the rear view mirror and the next thing you know, its a surging train zooming us into the next section.
Hancock builds his solos gradually and steadily, taking side roads each of which holds our interest in of itself, but then also plays a part in creating the larger structures. I’ve listened to the various solos, particularly the opening solo and the one around the fifteen minute mark, many times and continue to consider how I can describe them in metaphorical terms as a journey through a forest. So far, what I have is drier language. First he does this, then he does that; here’s where he’s going… but maybe I’ll do the other at some point during my writing. I hope so.
This fabulous groove around 11 minutes, with its interlocking parts, both is and is not a funk jam. It lives somewhere between Hancock’s ‘Fat Albert Rotunda’ R&B grooves and the put-it-together-like-a-puzzle James Brown, Sly, Funkadelic kinds of grooves. Buster Williams’ fuzz bass lines have a sense of motion that never ceases to intrigue, yet sits right in between the beats that keeps my foot tapping and tapping and tapping. After a return to the lyrical horn choir, a passage that conveys to me a sense of stillness in a forest, Bennie Maupin’s soprano sax solo is just catalytic, buoyed by Herbie Hancock’s repeated chordal patterns. Just deeply funky, although harmonically meandering. If there’s a way to be simultaneously funky and abstract, this is it.
After a return to the lyrical horns, the tune splinters apart with the horns playing what easily could have been an electronic texture using extended instrumental techniques, breathy sounds and altisimo range sonics, at which trombonist Julian Priest particularly excels to this day, coupled with Bennie Maupin’s sit-you-on-the-edge-of-your-seat multiphonics.
I will soon be listening again to live versions, with my many charts and graphs (from two years ago) in hand, searching to offer observations about the nature of their live performances. I look forward to that very much. Its my next task in writing this book, which is now quite well along its way.