19 February 2016

Bass is the Place, I

(or: Bass & Infrastructure, Part Whatever)

Simon told me he expected me to weigh in with a some candidates from the jazz canon, like I did during the drummage shootout. Far be it from me to disoblidge.

But as I said at the outset, I more often than not tend to hear the bass in relation to interplay with the rhythm section as a whole. This is especially the case with jazz. There's plenty of great jazz bassists I could cite -- the obvious list that'd include Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, Reggie Workman, Jimmy Garrison, Charlie Haden, Ron Carter, Richard Davis, Cecil McBee, etc. & etc. And I’d taxed to identify exceptional work (as evidenced by this-versus-that short solo) by any of the above that’d work for yootubage purposes.

So I think I’ll try this another way. That being: the role of bass in different ensembles hailing from  different phases of a particular artist's career/evolution. The artist in question being Herbie Hancock.

Yeahyeah, maybe a bit of a cumbersome conceit, I know. Be that as it may, here goes...

After doing a brief live stint playing in Mongo Santamaria’s band, Hancock decided to do a "Latin" joint for his third LP as a frontman, a quartet outing that also included bassist Paul Chambers and percussionists Willie Bobo and Osvaldo "Chihuahua" Martinez. With the exception of one composition, Hancock completely ditches his usual heavily melodic style of playing; instead playing in an almost wholly percussive manner as he improvises and navigates his way in and around whatever the other three are cooking up (e.g., after the 4:20 mark in the clip above). As polyrhythmic patterns proliferate, shifting this way and that, the duty goes to Chambers to provide the pulse that threads everything together. In effect: Centering the isht.

One of Hancock’s contributions to the Blow-Up soundtrack. Supposedly the bassman this time around was Ron Carter, but this one sounds like it may’ve instead been handled by the sessions' guitarist Jim Hall. Whichever the case, chances are you’ll recognize it right away, seeing it was borrowed some years later Booty Collins when he provided the bass line for a certain very Huge International Dance Hit.

Early on Hancock had proven himself exceptionaly sharp in a couple of departments. Foremost was his ability to pen slick melodic hooks, the sort that put tunes like “Watermelon Man”, "Cantaloupe Island" and “Maiden Voyage” over with audiences and peers in a big way, scoring him a handful of very popular crossover hits. Second was the fact that he -- at the advice of his mentor, trumpter Donald Byrd -- got his publishing right in order from the outset; thus allowing him to collect all due royalties on the aforementioned hits. That money would serve him well by the early 1970s, when Hancock went into full plugged-in/dashiki-and-afro/Zen Buddhist mode with what became known as his so-called Mwandishi Sextet.

Comparisons to Miles’s electric material of these years are common, but there are major differences. Whereas Miles’s electro-fusion material was often cluttered, dense, and heavily scripted; Hancock & crew took a more open, organic, and spacious approach that made for a lot more breathing room between the musicians’ interplay and improvising. It was also a lot more “cosmic” (in a pysch-era/Sun Ra-ish sense) than much of Miles’s work. Aside from Hancock, the personnel for this period included Benny Maupin on reeds, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, trombonist Julian Priester, drummer Billy Hart, and Buster Williams on bass (with the later addition of one Dr. Pat Gleeson on synths). By the time they got around to recording their third and final album, Sextant, Hancock had all but fully ditched his acoustic piano, and Buster Williams’s bass pushed forward in the mix, weighting in with a buzzing, almost stoner-rock type heaviness. If that weren't enough, the bass parts are often multi-layered, usually with Hancock doubling it on the keyboard, and sometimes additionally fleshed with Maupin going low on the bass clarinet or Priester’s bass trombone.

As a musical experiment, the Mwandishi venture didn’t prove commercially viable. Audiences were reportedly enthusiastic, but limited; and the three albums the group recorded netted only modest sales. At which point all of Hancock’s royalties came in handy, him covering the losses and keeping the outfit going by paying band members and traveling expenses out of his own pocket before finally calling an end to the project.

With 1973’s Head Hunters, Hancock backed the whole electro-fusion enterprise up and tried it again -- this time with a more pop-minded approach in mind. And hey, did it ever prove lucrative. The funky New Orleans-style strut of the tune "Chameleon" became a massive hit, as well as a common staple in the repertoires of school marching bands across the country.

By this point he was working with bassist Paul Jackson, percussionists Bill Summers and Harvey Mason, and (once again) outre reedman Bennie Maupin. "Chameleon" is most often known in its abridged 7-inch version -- a version that shaves off a full 13 minutes of the original, largely paring the thing back to the tunes opening theme and vamps, in which Hancock carries the punchy tuba-like bass portions on an ARP Odyssey. It’s only in the song’s full version that you get the expansive middle section (roughly 7:32 - 13:00+ in the clip above), at which point Jackson takes over and helps open the groove up into more broad-vista terrain.

Hancock would record several more albums with the group in the years that followed. Jackson, Maupin and crew would record their own jazz-funk LP without Hancock, adding guitarist DeWayne "Blackbyrd" McKnight for 1975’s Survival of the Fittest; which would provide hiphop producers with a treasure trove of sample-worthy grooves in later decades.

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