Herbie Mann: An Amalgamation of Everything
We formed the basic band in January, and we worked very hard for six months. Now we've reached a plateau where we have to move on. We've gotten into a very ethnic, primitive thing that's very similar to what I did in the '60s with my wooden flutes. We've gotten into that because Rafael Cruz has been playing berimbau, which is a Brazilian stringed percussion instrument. We have acoustic guitar, and I'm playing wooden flutes, and then at the same time, Claudio Roditi on trumpet, flugelhorn, and trombonehas gotten an octave divider, and I have a FRAP pickup and a Roland Chorus Echo machine, so we're going in two directions. Las week somebody asked me, "Could you simplify and tell us what your band's music is like?" I said, "Well, if you could imagine two pygmies from Africa, two natives from the jungle of the Amazon, combined with two German nuclear physicists, maybe you have a basic concept of the way the band is."
JAA: I'm told that after 18 years with Atlantic Records, you're looking into completing your contractual obligations. Why is that?
HM: I don't think there's anything that can't be resolved, I hope. I think, basically, it's not so much a problem with Atlantic. The main problem right now is that there's such a potential for success in the record industry. Successful records sell more than ever before. All of a sudden, it's a ho-hum item that a record went gold. It's on page 23 of Billboard.
It takes a company to want to not only have successful groups, but also to devote some time to what I consider fringe groups selling below 100,000. Now, most major companies can't even afford to keep them on the roster, because of the amount of effort and time it takes to sell a group. Instrumental music, with very few exceptions, may sell. If it's successful, [it] may sell 200,000 or 250,000. George Benson is extraordinary . . .
JAA: He's also a vocalist.
HM: OK, Chuck Mangione. With Chuck, he had the advantage of recording for Herb Alpert. I would venture to say that nine out of ten companies would not have moved Feels So Good (A&M, 1977). Chuck has been making records like that for a long time; he works very hard. It's far easier for a record company to say, "Well, it's limited; lets' not work on it."
Bruce Lundvall at CBS has decided, or so it seems, that jazz and improvised music is very important to CBS. But not only are they interested in Herbie Hancock and in Weather Report, but they're also interested in Dexter Gordon. It takes that kind of interest to try and make that decision whether they are going to be solely profit-motivated, or at the same time leave some time open to creativity.
Now, this is not to say that all pop music is bad, because some pop music is extraordinary. I just went down to Florida and played on the new Bee Gees album. And they are very talented writers. They have been for years. I spent one day on 16 bars of one song. Of course, they probably have the greatest budget in history for their next album. But Barry Gibb is a very creative improviser. They improvise everything that they do on their records. They don't ever give anything to an arranger and say, "Make and arrangement." They do it all. They improvise the background, and when they get the backgrounds they like, then they give it to somebody.
When a record like Saturday Night Fever (Polydor, 1977) sells that much, and they're that successful, there's got to be a very good reason for it. They happen to write good music. So does Paul Simon. So does James Taylor. So does Fleetwood Mac. I would just like to have the opportunity to spend as much time and effort as Steely Dan. Listen to their album. Aja (MCA, 1977) is probably, for me, the classic fusion album of all time, because up until this point, every other fusion album has been from a jazz musician trying to cross over into pop music. Now, here you have two songwriters who, I think, have come from rock. The end result is the classic fusion album of all time. Oh, they had a budget of $350,000 or something, but it's worth it.
Richard Tee told me that they used almost three complete rhythm sections. The only constant thing was Chuck Rainey on bass. They used Bernard Purdie on all the tracks; they used Rick Marotta on all the tracks; they used Steve Gadd on all the tracksall with different players. And then they decided which ones they wanted. But listen to it; it's a classic.
JAA: Let's get back to you. I hear that you're playing tenor sax again.
HM: And clarinet.
JAA: The last time you played tenor on an LP was, I think, your very first album for Atlantic, The Common Ground (1961). Very early in your career you were quoted in Downbeat as saying, "Eventually I have to play jazz tenor. I have to get it out of my system." That was 1956. What took you so long?