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Herbie Mann: An Amalgamation of Everything

Bob Kenselaar By

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As far as where it’s all going right at this point, there’s going to be an amalgamation of everything.
[Flauist Herbie Mann was often ahead of the trend with his wide explorations into sounds from everywhere. When I asked him in this 1978 interview where music in general was heading, he talked about a broad mix—"an amalgamation of everything"—which might be a good way to describe Mann's overall career, except that it doesn't account for his own personal, exuberant voice.]

Over the last 25 years, Herbie Mann has taken his flute all over the map—literally and figuratively. It's not that he's unfocused—he's just got a very eclectic vision of music. He isn't simply interested in learning about music from all over the globe; he's ready to dive in and play just about anything, too.

By the end of the 1950s, Mann had established himself as one of the top jazz flute players around—recording with Clifford Brown, Sarah Vaughan, Kenny Burrell, and Phil Woods, among others. He moved away from bebop to Afro-Cuban jazz, and in 1959, took his band on a tour of 15 countries in African, sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Back home in New York in 1961, he recorded his first big jazz hit, "Comin' Home Baby," a straightforward medium-tempo blues in C, on a live album, Herbie Mann at the Village Gate (Atlantic, 1961). Around that same time, he took his band on a tour of Brazil—before Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd's Jazz Samba (Verve, 1962)—and returned soon after to record with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Sergio Mendes.

Later in the '60s, Mann recorded two albums of Middle-Eastern-inspired music, and on a visit to Berlin, he teamed up with an 80-piece orchestra for Concerto Grosso in D-flat Blues (Atlantic, 1968 ). He followed that with a hugely popular album, Memphis Underground (Atlantic, 1969), recorded with a top Memphis R&B rhythm section. He collaborated with Duane Allman and other top American rock musicians on Push Push (Atlantc, 1971), and he made a trip to the other side of the Atlantic to record with a group of British rockers for London Underground (Atlantic, 1974). In 1975, Mann's disco single "Hijack" was number one on the Billboard dance chart for three weeks. Not much later, he recorded an album blending jazz with gagaku, the royal court music of Japan. After working nearly exclusively as a leader of his own bands for many years, he's made two recordings as a sideman in 1978, one with Australian Barry Gibb and the Bee Gees, and the other—coming full circle back to jazz—with Kansas City legend Jay McShann. His most recent album under his own name makes another return to a place he's been before: Brazil: Once Again (Atlantic, 1978).

Jazz in the Aquarian Age: You played a bigger role than most people realize in bringing the bossa nova to popularity in United States in the early '60s. What brings you back to Brazilian music now?

Herbie Mann: Well, the first time I got involved with Brazilian music, I had a basic Afro-Cuban band, with Carlos "Patato" Valdes and Jose Mangual Sr., Johnny Rae playing vibes, and bass and drums. It was very African or Latin—that meant vamp tunes, one or two chords. Latin music, as a lot of primitive music, is very simple harmonically but very involved rhythmically. That's where all the harmonies are—rhythmic. But it got to be kind of a bore after a while, so I went down to Brazil in '62, and, all of a sudden, not only am I hearing incredible rhythmic music, but with it very beautiful, romantic, melodic, lovely music, as well. So here is the perfect combination. It's like being married to a French mistress whose father owns a liquor store. So I did that for a while, and, you see, with me, the thing is, if I discover something, I'm very selfish about it. All of a sudden when I see it all over the place—it's like finding a clothes designer who maybe has had six or seven suits, and all of a sudden you see a copy from Alexander's. Well, you don't wear your suit anymore.

Everybody started playing bossa nova, and all those people that put it down started playing it. When I got to Brazil, Dizzy Gillespie had already heard the music; Miles Davis had already heard the music. I think, if I'm not mistaken, the Quiet Nights (Columbia, 1963) album by Miles—if not recorded before, was recorded exactly or close to the time that Stan Getz recorded "Desafinado." But they sat on it all that time. [Davis recorded most of Quiet Nights in July 1962; Getz recorded "Desafinado" with Charlie Byrd for their album Jazz Samba in February 1962.]

Then Brazilian music became very fashionable, and it became another opportunity for an improvising musician to find a vehicle to help broaden his appeal. A lot of jazz musicians started playing the bossa nova because all the tunes Jobim originally wrote were influenced by Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker and West Coast kind of jazz to begin with, so it was close to a jazz musician's concept of music.

It was time to move on to other things. I changed my bands a lot and traveled quite a bit, and I found other musicians to experiment with. Then I got very involved with seeing if I could take the disco concept and combine it with improvising. I was probably the first improviser to do this. Now, it takes just as much balls to say, "Well screw the Village Voice and screw Downbeat; I have enough balls to try something that if it works is going to be very successful and is gonna be really put down by the critics."

Well, "Hijack" was a very big record. It came out at about the same time as "The Hustle." That was the very beginning of disco music. And it was the biggest single I ever had; it sold 750,000 copies. It was like number ten on the charts. Every ten minutes, I heard it on WABC [the New York City top-forty AM radio station]. Then the mistake was that I tried to follow that success by repeating it, and I did four other albums that were basically disco. Of course, again, what had happened was that everybody else, all the record companies and artists had seen that this was another opportunity to get to the masses. So here was the same thing again; it was all over the place. And now what do I do to save my head from going insane?

So, last year, I met some people from Brazil at the Montreux festival and started listening to some new music from Brazil, and I met a couple of musicians here, like Amaury Tristao, who played on the Brazil: Once Again album. I started getting some new records, and I started hearing that there's a whole new generation of people. It's been since '62—15 years. There were people that were eight and nine years old at the time who are now writing music. So, there was an opportunity, because I'm always interested in rhythmic music. I find it much more interesting than four beats to the measure. Not that we don't do that now. As a change of pace, we're playing standards, and we're playing bebop tunes, and people have never heard them. It's a whole new revelation to all these people.

JAA: Are you doing those kinds of things on your next album?

HM: Well, we just finished an album, [Sunbelt (Atlantic, 1979)]. On it there's a Richard Tee tune, there's couple of new Brazilian songs, and we redid "Watermelon Man." I wanted to get away from using a keyboard player. I find that no matter how sensitive a keyboard player is—and I've had beautiful players. Chick Corea played with me, Herbie Hancock...

JAA: You also played with Bill Evans.

HM: Right. Also, Pat Rebillot, and I recorded with Richard Tee. If I could have Richard Tee in my band, then there would be no problems. But you can't have Richard Tee in your band, 'cause he's too busy. I decided I would do without keyboards. So what we have is an airy kind of band. And I've just added a second bass player. We have Frank Gravis playing and Jeff Berlin has the freedom to do whatever he wants. The combination is extraordinary.

JAA: This is something you've done before.

HM: But I've never done it with two basses.

JAA: Didn't you record "Comin' Home Baby" that way?

HM: Right. Ben Tucker and Ahmed Abdul-Malik. It was a little different. They were both playing acoustic basses, but it was the same kind of concept; you're right. But what they were doing was Ben Tucker was playing the basic vamp, or vice-versa, and one was just playing a fill-in vamp. Here, Jeff Berlin improvises backgrounds and figures as if he's another guitarist or a keyboard player. I told him it's probably the first time in history that a leader told a bassist, "Don't play basic. You're free to do whatever you want." Jeff has more technique than I've ever heard before. I've had Miroslav Vitous in my band. I've had Ron Carter in my band. But I must say Jeff Berlin has the most technique I've heard. I say he and Jaco Pastorius are the most creative soloists right now.

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 trombone—has 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 . . .
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