First, the good news. Draft 16 of ‘You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band” is now complete. The editorial committees of University of Chicago Press are about to receive the favorable outside reviews and will hopefully move the book into its production phase in the coming weeks.
Its been a while since I last blogged about musical issues regarding the book. This is because I have been largely involved in editing and collecting reminiscences from musicians who were impacted by the band’s music. Recent entries have largely focused on these. An issue that has been on my mind during the completion of the current (and nearly final) draft of the book has been this: how to talk about music that is simultaneously abstract and funky. Poignant examples are found in the tunes ‘Sleeping Giant’, ‘Hornets’ and ‘Hidden Shadows.’ The purpose of abstraction is to shift music away from the literal to the emotional and imaginative, or to a world of sound in and of itself. One might say that funk, being a form of dance music, would be anything but abstract. Yet the two ideas coalesce quite neatly at this stage in Herbie Hancock’s playing. Funkiness can lie in the treatment of the beat and its interplay, which melodic content can be rather abstract.
Funky, while a term originating in and used widely in black music, is not a strictly musical word, referring more broadly to a celebratory attitude towards life coupled with a joyful loosening of inhibition. But in strictly musical terms, it enters the vocabulary of hard bop, where funky refers to a syncopated music that pushes against the beat, sometimes anticipating and on other occasions following it. Horace Silver’s tune ‘Filthy McNasty’ captures both the musical and extra-musical sides of the term funky. Herbie Hancock’s early professional career arose during the hard bop era and his first major ongoing gig was with a key figure in that movement, Donald Byrd. One hears those influences in Hancock’s early recordings under his own name (think of the tunes ‘Watermelon Man’ or ‘Cantelope Island’) where he takes an approach rather different from that known through his work with the Miles Davis Quintet. During the late 1960s, a new musical dance form – funk – emerged in which the groove was central. The rhythmic emphasis was on the downbeat, as opposed to the practice in rhythm and blues as well as idiomatic jazz, where accents land on the second and fourth beats. The bass plays a leading role in creating the groove, joined by other instruments, each creating its own distinct syncopated rhythm. Together these interlock, forming a rhythmically complex whole that anticipates, comments upon, and prepares the arrival of the downbeat.
In Herbie Hancock’s solos on ‘Ostinato’ and from that point forth within the music of the Mwandishi band, he comps by creating syncopated rhythmic/melodic patterns (ostinati) that dance around and about the pulse, forming an integral element within the band’s chain of interlocking beats. The more that Hancock’s figures anticipate and ornament the beat with syncopation, the funkier his playing becomes. Borrowing a practice developed by rock, rhythm and blues, and funk guitarists, Hancock routed his Fender Rhodes through a wah-wah pedal which, when toggled, emphasizes different frequencies, heightening the attack and emulating vowel sounds. This effect heightens the funkiness of his playing, in part due to the referencing of similar guitar techniques increasingly utilized within the new genre. The wah-wah drew upon a practice within early jazz where vocal sounds are mimicked by placing a plunger within the bell of trumpets and trombones. The “dirtying” of the sound suggested the lack of timbral purity, a “nastiness” that was integral to both early jazz and subsequently, to funk.
For Herbie Hancock, the techniques of abstraction sometimes begin with functional harmony, but through reduction of those chords to one or more notes, their identity becomes blurred and rendered obscured. But other times, Hancock draws upon practices located outside of functional harmony, such as atonality or sounds as sonic events (such as might be found in electronic music of the 1950s and 70s). He drew upon a wide range of musical forms and compositional techniques from within the jazz avant-garde and from an array of other sources, ranging from the French Impressionists to representatives of the 20th Century avant-garde, among them Olivier Messiaen, Igor Stravinsky, Pierre Schaeffer, Karlheinz Stockhausen…
At times this integration is achieved with electronic processing, such as the Echoplex, introduced above, and pitch shifting. At other times, it is a function of Hancock’s use of tone clusters in place of chords, blurring specific harmonic identity. In a sense the clusters become purely rhythmic figures, while suggesting something amorphously chordal. At this point in Hancock’s development, the lines between harmony and atonality cease to matter.
So, can music be simultaneously funky, rhythmically complex, and sonically abstract? Give a listen to Herbie Hancock’s ‘Crossings’, ‘Sextant’, and in places, ‘Mwandishi.’