Rehabilitating Herbie, Part 1

herbie_mann_bwPreviously-Unheard 1969 Live Tapes from Jazz Flautist and his Band

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.

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