Previously-unheard 1969 live tapes from jazz flautist and his band make it clear that Mann was nothing if not underrated. “Herbie was pushing the envelope,” says album producer Pat Thomas. “He always had his ear to the ground,” agrees Mann biographer Cary Ginell.
BY BILL KOPP, BLURT JAZZ DESK EDITOR
Nominally a jazz musician, flautist Herbie Mann (1930-2003) enjoyed crossover appeal and success that brought his music to a much wider population than simply jazz aficionados. Mann released dozens of albums, and restlessly explored different styles of music. He sold a lot of records, won numerous DownBeat polls, and was a reliable concert draw for decades. But along the way, his interest in different musical forms sometimes worked against him: today, many regard him as little more than a dilettante at best, and at worst a shameless, commercially-driven hack.
That’s largely unfair. He did churn out some rather disposable pop, especially in the 1970s, with hit singles like “Hijack” (#14 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, and #1 on their Disco Action chart) from 1975’s Discothèque LP), but he was a true innovator, an artist who was always looking for the cross-fertilization of genres that is vital to music’s ongoing development.
A new 2CD set from Real Gone Music should help rehabilitate Mann’s undeservedly tarnished reputation among jazz lovers, and among musically adventurous listeners in general. Live at the Whisky 1969: The Unreleased Masters compiles previously unreleased tapes from Mann’s week-long engagement at Hollywood’s famed Whisky a Go Go. The set features performances of Mann with his stellar band – bassist Miroslav Vitouš, who would later go on to found Weather Report; vibraphonist Roy Ayers; saxophonist Steve Marcus; drummer Bruno Carr; and avant-jazz electric guitarist Sonny Sharrock. And the set’s second disc includes a rare gem: Sharrock’s wife Linda Sharrock joins the band onstage for some free-form avant-garde vocals that some have likened to the early work of Yoko Ono. By design, this new 2CD set has no overlap with the music released in 1969 as Live at the Whisky A Go Go.
The archival project of rescuing these performances from obscurity came to light thanks to the efforts of Pat Thomas, producer of many reissues and author of Listen, Whitey: The Sights and Sounds of Black Power and (with soul jazz legend Les McCann), Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann.
Thomas explains how the project came about. “I had been a big Herbie Mann fan. And his live albums, of course, are only 30-40 minutes. So it was obvious to me that they didn’t go in and record four songs and leave. I thought that since this was a small club gig, it would be more interesting than, say, a show at Madison Square Garden.”
Thomas “bugged the powers-that-be at Atlantic Records,” but says their response was along the lines of, “’Oh, we can’t find the tapes,’ blah blah blah. So when I moved to L.A. and started doing more reissues and more research, I hooked up with Bill Inglot; he’s done a million research projects for Rhino and other labels. He told me, ‘I found the tapes you’ve been looking for.’”
That entire week of shows at the Whisky had been taped by famed engineer Bill Halverson, who recorded Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young‘s 4 Way Street. “The tapes sounded great, and were really easy to mix,” says Thomas. “We pulled the tapes out of the vault. Brian Kehew – who does a lot of mixing; he mixed that big Yes box set [Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-two] – and I mixed the tapes.”
What they found was that the tapes from the first night didn’t even feature the band’s leader. “That first night, Herbie was sick, so the band played without him,” Thomas says. “I was really hoping that there could be some wild jams, just based on the fact that they didn’t play a real set. But unfortunately, they noodled! They got levels on their instruments and didn’t really play.”
But as Thomas and Kehew dug deeper, their efforts paid off in a big way. They discovered “two versions of “If I Were a Carpenter” that are really just extended jams. I could hear that Herbie was really stretching out. And the most surprising thing was that Linda Sharrock was in the audience, and Herbie brought her up onstage. They did these Sonny and Linda Sharrock songs from the album Black Woman, songs that they had only recorded in the studio three weeks earlier.”
The audience at the Whisky would likely have been mystified by Sharrock’s unexpected and very out-there performance. “Herbie was pushing the envelope,” Thomas chuckles. “The Whisky A Go Go is known for great music, but it’s not exactly an avant-garde jazz haven. So I’m sure there were people in the audience scratching their heads, thinking, ‘What is this Linda Sharrock shit?’”
There was some precedent for the unusual musical direction Mann took his band with Linda Sharrock. “Herbie was very kind to his sidemen,” Thomas points out. “He made sure that all of them wound up putting out a solo album.” That generosity extended to the wife of his guitarist, an avant-garde singer who would release the highly-regarded Black Woman, her first album with husband Sonny, for Mann’s Vortex label, not long after the Whisky dates.
And Sonny himself was considered by some an unusual choice for Mann’s group. His style is closer in spirit and texture to Jimi Hendrix than, say, Joe Pass. But it’s a major highlight of Herbie Mann’s acclaimed 1969 LP, Memphis Underground.
“In the ‘60s, Herbie wanted to appeal to younger audiences,” observes Cary Ginell, author of several books including The Evolution of Mann: Herbie Mann and the Flute in Jazz. “And the way to do that was through rock ’n’ roll. He always enjoyed challenging his audiences and thumbing his nose at his critics, and when he got a hold of Sonny Sharrock, he did that and more. He was really deliberately antagonizing people by getting the most ‘out’ Hendrix-styled guitarist he could find, and letting him have at it.”
Ginell notes that “Herbie never told his musicians what to play; he figured they knew what they were all about. Sharrock was the first of a run of musicians Herbie hired who stepped out of the jazz mainstream and played from another perspective.”
Real Gone’s Live at the Whisky 1969: The Unreleased Masters puts the exciting, adventurous side of Herbie Mann’s music on full display. “I think this album – for those who are paying attention – is going to establish Herbie more in that Miles Davis camp of groundbreaking progressive jazz,” says Thomas. “That’s a part of his legacy that doesn’t get into the history books, because most people think of him as a sort of pop-jazz hack.”
“Obviously there were points in his career when they did take him seriously,” says Thomas. “But I think that the more casual jazz fans certainly didn’t like the more pop aspects of his work; by the mid-1970s, he went very pop. And then there are these people – I call ’em jazz Nazis – who always tell me that soul-jazz and funk-jazz are not jazz. ‘Oh, Les McCann? That’s not jazz!’ And Herbie Mann gets tossed in that pool.”
Ginell agrees, noting that “critics never liked Herbie, possibly because he got tired of playing the pigeonhole game. They liked him when he played straight-ahead jazz, and then when he ventured into Afro Cuban jazz. But as soon as he started having crossover success, they started accusing him of selling out.”
Ginell points out that in the 1960s, Mann “started recording covers of songs on the pop charts — things by the Beatles, Donovan, etc. — and that alienated him further from the intelligentsia. Crossover success has never been popular among jazz critics,” he says. “They’ve always wanted jazz to themselves; anyone who is successful is accused of selling out.”
Mann’s abilities as a musician are underrated, too, according to Ginell. His research turned up what he calls “mixed messages on how Herbie was viewed as a musician. Some, like vibraphonist Dave Pike, thought Herbie was a phony with limited talent. [Vibraphonist] Terry Gibbs told me he thought Herbie was a terrible musician. Personally, I don’t see it,” Ginell says. “He had great chops, an excellent rhythmic and melodic sensibility, but could get bogged down in simplistic patterns. Herbie was all about excitement, though, and knew how to be a showman. That was his strength.”
That, and putting together excellent bands, and reaching beyond the confines of his genre. “I think he has been vastly underrated as a musician who expanded jazz’s horizons, most notably in mixing jazz with world music,” says Ginell. “Herbie’s efforts helped call attention to jazz among young listeners. He always had his ear to the ground to see about the new styles of music that were coming into vogue and what young people were listening to.”
Ginell observes that “styles always change, and Herbie never wanted to be pigeonholed or forced to play just one kind of music. For that, purists called him a commercial sellout. He refused to play their game. They wanted him to play straight ahead bebop forever, but he abandoned that in the late ‘50s.”
Herbie Mann was “the first American to record with Brazilian musicians,” says Ginell. “He used integrated bands with musicians from other countries, he experimented with Japanese, Eastern European, and other musical areas that other jazz musicians wouldn’t touch. He was curious and was a musical explorer.
“But,” Ginell concludes, “he never gets credit for these things, because he was always looking at music with a commercial eye.”
For those who appreciate Herbie Mann’s music, there’s even more on the way. “I just put together a collection of Herbie Mann seven-inch singles for Varese,” says Thomas. “There are some incredible non-LP funk singles in that collection. There’s no release date for that yet; probably late this year or 2017. It’ll be all over the map, because it’s going to have ‘Hijack’ on it along with some pop stuff, but it’s also going to have a funk single circa 1970 that had a rapper over the top of it! That’s something that the fan will want to chew on.”
Pat Thomas says, “I think Live at the Whisky 1969: The Unreleased Masters will help set the record straight. I think people will be pleasantly surprised, for sure.” He smiles and adds, “Projects like this are what get me out of bed in the morning; this is what it’s all about.”
Bill Kopp is a music journalist, editor of Musoscribe.com, and editor of BLURT‘s newly-launched jazz desk. He has written liner notes for several jazz reissues, including Cannonball Adderley‘s The Price You Got to Pay to Be Free and Music, You All, both due out in May.