It’s not that Herbie Hancock doesn’t get the love and heaps of praise that he deserves, but his trilogy of albums he released for Warner Brothers Records in the early 70s definitely do not. Mwandishi, The Crossing, and Sextant were released concurrently in 1971, 1972, and 1973, and saw Hancock expanding his sonic palate exponentially. His intellectual jazz was starting to evolve into something funkier and more expansive. His work with Miles Davis in the late 60s was hinting at what would come on albums like The Prisoner and Fat Albert Rotunda, but with an album like Mwandishi there was no predicting the dense arrangements and far out vibes that were to come.
In a lot of ways working on albums like Miles In The Sky, Filles de Kilamanjaro, and In A Silent Way were primers for the directions Mwandishi, The Crossing, and Sextant would take. Of those three Mwandishi is still set the most in the mold of those records, combining both the late 60s funk, hard bop and modal jazz, and the more cosmic jazz vibes we heard on In A Silent Way. But Hancock had his own thing going on. He was orchestrating this sort of far out jazz ensemble that combined both an “out there” quality while being firmly planted in Africa as well. Mwandishi was very much a roots record; a journey from the Big Bang to the African American experience.
I recently picked up an OG pressing of Mwandishi and have been spinning it nonstop. I don’t think Herbie Hancock made anything quite like Mwandishi or its sister records The Crossing and Sextant before or after. These seem like very isolated and unique albums in the Hancock discography. He would release Headhunters in 1973, the same year Sextant came out, and would begin a journey into 70s funk/fusion that would define Hancock’s sound until the early 80s with Future Shock.
Mwandishi still feels rooted in what came before, but influenced by the journey of Hancock’s former bandleader, Miles Davis. Album opener “Ostinato(Suite For Angela)” opens on mysterious notes, electric piano echoing as if coming from some time portal. Soon enough Hancock’s stellar band, which included Buster Williams(bass), Eddie Henderson(trumpet, flugelhorn), Billy Hart(drums), Bennie Maupin(bass clarinet, alto flute, piccolo, and Julian Priester(tenor trombone, bass trombone), come in with some serious funky chops. There’s even electric guitar courtesy of Ronnie Montrose. José Areas and Leon “Ndugu” Chancler add extra percussion to the proceedings.
Then there’s the mystery and beauty of “You’ll Know When You Get There”, an almost orchestral feel permeates the track with Bennie Maupin giving the dense track a light touch with flute and piccolo. The grooving bass and ethereal electric piano give you the feel of floating. These six musicians seemingly open our brains to allow us to expand our horizons here. Definitely some Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way vibes here. Despite the symphonic sound, Hancock brings us into the present(well, 1971 anyways) with his deft touches on the keys. It’s like groovy fusion on the astral plane, you dig?
“Wandering Spirit Song” is the album side closer. It’s an absolute stunner, continuing the almost orchestral psychedelia we were treated to on side one. Hancock becomes some kind of cosmic conductor here. The song stays steady with a continuous and gorgeous build. There’s moments of chaos and an almost big band trapped in space sound here, but Herbie Hancock never lets them spin off into space. He keeps calm and control over the whole of Mwandishi.
So much attention is put on major players like Davis and Coltrane, that I think we tend to forget the huge impact the cats that backed those giants made. Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter,…these four alone put out a staggeringly prolific amount of music in the late 60s/early 70s. Freddie Hubbard’s solo LPs on Blue Note alone are some of the best hard bop and post bop released in the 60s. But take a deep dive into his ECM releases in the early 70s if you want to feed your brain, man. Shorter and Tyner did the serious work as well.
Herbie Hancock put out three stunning and intellectual records both after he proved himself in the 60s as a composer of the highest order, and also before he remade himself with Headhunters. Mwandishi is the beginning of that journey, and man what a journey it is.