The Moog synthesizer’s inaugural public performance… with Hank Jones or Herbie Hancock?
Herbie Hancock is for good reason well known as an early adopter of new technologies. His fascination with electronics dates at least as far back as college and his interests specifically in electronic music begins early in his time with the Miles Davis Quintet. Some of the poignant moments in his recording career represent moments when he was experiencing a new instrument for the first time. Two of these are his Fender Rhodes electronic piano playing on the tune ‘Stuff’ on the Miles Davis Quintet’s album “Miles in the Sky” and his Farfisa electric organ solo on ‘Right Off’ from Miles Davis’s “A Tribute to Jack Johnson.” I write about each of these moments in “You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and Mwandishi Band,” coming in August on University of Chicago Press.
Herbie Hancock’s first exposure to synthesizers, however, was not actually playing one, but rather, witnessing what turned out to be Patrick Gleeson’s work on two tracks from “Crossings,” the second Mwandishi band record. The story of that encounter was sparked by producer David Rubinson’s suggestion that Hancock visit Gleeson’s studio if he wanted to learn about synthesizers. The demonstration could have moved him to begin playing synthesizer, but Hancock was so enthralled with Gleeson’s creative interpolations within the band’s completed studio tracks, leading to Gleeson’s joining the band. Herbie Hancock’s beginnings as a synthesizer player are first on display on the post-Mwandishi recording “Head Hunters.” And all the rest is history.
I recently discovered that there was a prequel to Herbie Hancock’s “life with synthesizers.” This dates back to August 1969, during the touring period of the Herbie Hancock Sextet, prior to its reorganization as the Mwandishi band. This was the period between the recording of the two 1969 albums under his name, “The Prisoner” and “Fat Albert Rotunda.” But the story unfolds in an unexpected direction.
The setting was a concert that provided the public unveiling of the Moog synthesizer as a live performance keyboard instrument. It took place in New York City, before a large, excited crowd. The August 28, 1969 concert was the finale in a summer series, “Jazz in the Garden,” performed outdoors in the Museum of Modern Art’s Sculpture Garden. The all-electronic concert showcased four small-scale Moog systems, all keyboard instruments, one emulating bass and vocal sounds, a percussion synthesizer, a complex system with presets allowing relatively rapid access to a multiplicity of sound options, and a fourth with a polyphonic keyboard, suited for a skilled pianist who could both solo and comp. Pianist Chris Swanson, who had already been performing Bach and, later, jazz concerts on the Moog, fronted a group that included a then relatively unknown guitarist, John McLaughlin, pianist Hal Galper, and drummer Bob Moses.
A second quartet was fronted by Moog’s associate Herb Deutsch. The pianist who played the polyphonic Moog was the acclaimed Hank Jones. But Jones was not Deutsch’s first choice; Herbie Hancock was. Hancock modestly declined the invitation with a fascinating rationale, as Herb Deutsch later recalled: “I don’t remember his exact words, but he felt that at the time, synthesizers and electronic music were things he didn’t know enough about (pretty amazing considering where he went within 4 years of that concert!!). It was Herbie who suggested that Hank Jones might be interested, and it was really an honor to get to know Hank.” The concert was a great success, despite an abrupt interruption near the end, when someone inadvertently pulled the power plug for the multi-keyboard set-up and sound system. Critic Bertram Stanleigh wrote of the concert: “These were real musicians playing real music, and it was clear that their message was getting to the audience.” I wonder how history might have gone differently had Herbie Hancock said “yes” to Bob Moog’s August 1969 invitation. It is very difficult to complain about what did in fact unfold: “Crossings,” “Sextant,” “The Spook Who Sat By the Door” soundtrack and the Mwandishi touring band with Patrick Gleeson – and the ability of Herbie Hancock to experience yet another “first time” to inaugurate the Headhunters band era.
A fascinating post-script: after the concert, R.A. Moog sold one of the Moog systems from the concert through its English distributor. It was purchased on behalf of a British rock keyboardist who was about to record his new band’s soon to be hit single, “Lucky Man.” The distinctive solo, known for its slow portamento (pitch slide) was performed on the newly purchased Moog (another “first” encounter creative moment) by, of course, Keith Emerson. And the band was recording its first, eponymous titled album, “Emerson, Lake and Palmer.”