BY ZACHARY HOCKENBERRY//
As I sat in the back of a packed car with my head sticking out the window looking into the Hudson Bay from the Verrazano Bridge, I listened to “Check the Rhime” by A Tribe Called Quest, pulsing from the backseat speakers. The funky groove and Q-Tip’s bouncing lyrics reminded me that I was back home in Brooklyn where I would remain until September.
Like most college students, I had no idea that school’s would still be in the process of reopening a year later and that college would be done online for a while. COVID-19 added a whole new stress to our daily lives and made us feel less in control. But control over our playlists is a power that we still have.
Music has, as it always has, helped lift us out of bed and put us to sleep. We need a sweet melody to whistle to, or a smooth groove to go with each step we take as we continue forward. This pandemic has given us an opportunity to explore all kinds of music. Especially in a world where genres, of all types, can be accessed on either Spotify or Apple Music.
Over the past year I have built up a collection of albums that have defined my quarantine experience and I hope to share my favorite ones in a new WRGW blog series, For the Record. Many of these albums dip into various genres such as 90s hip hop, electric jazz, funk, North-African jazz, and qawwali fusion.
Since the world is in transitioning process currently, I thought it would make sense to start with Herbie Hancock’s 1975 album, Man-Child, when the jazz troubadour began experimenting with funk rhythms and produced some of the most iconic funk tunes that can hardly keep you from tapping your feet.
Two years before the release of Man-Child, Herbie assembled a new band called the Headhunters which propelled the pianist towards a new age of jazz fusion and funk. The band included Bennie Maupin (saxophone), Paul Jackson (bass), Harvey Mason (drums), and Bill Summers (percussion). The 1973 album, Head Hunters sold over a million copies and became one of the most popular Jazz fusion albums with its opening track, “Chameleon” easily getting stuck in peoples’ heads. If you listen you’ll probably recognize it (It’s called Head Hunter for a reason).
Man-Child continues Herbie’s quest for funk including steady hi-hat and snare rhythms with accompanying guitar and saxophone motifs. Herbie himself has multiple solos on electric keyboard and piano which provides an interesting contrast to the synthesizers. The clavichord, which was a fairly new instrument at the time, is also put to good use in the album, as well as smaller percussive instruments, such as bongos.
The most important feature of the album is the extensive use of the wah-wah pedal which is a device that warps the effect of an electric guitar to make the onomatopoeic sound, “wah-wah.” That sound has come to characterize funk and other genres shaping the music we hear today.
But the funk of James Brown or Isaac Hayes is not the only style that Herbie is drawing from. The shifting genre of Jazz plays a heavy role in Herbie’s tracks as well. “The Traitor” and “Bubbles” contains saxophone and piano solos reminiscent of Jazz improvisation. We will dig into a few songs to see just what Herbie and his fellow musicians were doing in a studio in 1974.
Hang Up Your Hang Ups
Every time I hear that guitar riff at the beginning of the opening track I feel as though I’m in a 1970s action film. The riff remains constant for most of the 7 minutes and 29 seconds of the song. But subtly, behind the riff you can notice the wah-wah pedal responding to the central motif that is illustrated through saxophone and guitar.
The song can be structured into four sections with the beginning guitar riff standing on its own marking the beginning of the first three sections. The final section begins with a change in percussion and a piano solo to finish it off.
The second section starts up with the same guitar riff from the beginning, but quickly Paul Jackson’s bass groove jumps in. Soon after, everyone follows with greater intensity.
At the third section, the wah-wahs are now fully integrated with the riff and bongos are introduced as well. This time, the intensity is loosened slightly, giving us time to breathe and prepare for section four.
The final section begins with a change in percussion, including heavy use of the hi-hat while a piano solo follows, with a string ambient behind it. At this point, the guitar only plays a minor role and the acoustics of the piano come to dominate the track, giving off a free-Jazz feel. The track grows, again, in intensity and builds up to a final abrupt conclusion.
After a couple listens I realize that the track speeds up between each section by a noticeable amount, but it definitely doesn’t take away from the groove. This track is probably my favorite one off the album.
Similarly to “Hang Up Your Hang Ups,” this song begins with a steady funk beat accompanied by electric guitar and wah-wahs. This time, however, we hear a clavichord responding to the guitar. Moreover, the groove is more sparse as well with no single riff getting all the attention.
The track continues like this for about a minute until the main synthesizer motif comes in, giving us a small taste of what is to come. Before getting to a chaotic array of synthesizers we get a small bass solo.
A little under two minutes into the song we hear a loud and intense synthesizer come in, taking on the role of a saxophone in a Jazz band. It is not the most pleasant to listen to and the sound definitely sounds like it would come from an arcade game (at one point you can hear a pacman-like sound), but it does give it an interesting ambiance. Behind all this is a consistent beat with trumpets that call out.
One last synthetic machine sound emanates and a funky piano tune fades in. This piano tune contrasts the electric sounds that we’ve been hearing thus far in an interesting way. I really like how Herbie incorporates an upbeat Blues tune to this mainly funk groove.
The rest of the song maintains a constant beat with the clavichord, guitar, and bass all getting equal attention. Behind it, there is a smooth string-like synthesizer that encompasses the background while a saxophone and electric keyboard play brief solos. The song doesn’t end as abruptly as “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” as Herbie instead chooses to have it fade out with an enticing echoing sound to surround the incessant groove.
“The Traitor” is definitely an interesting track with a lot going on and at times it can be hard to listen to. But I do like how Herbie doesn’t shy away from adding some chaotic synths or a smooth acoustic solo.
Not all of the tracks on this album are upbeat funk tunes, however. Track number four entitled “Bubbles” has a much smoother character to it. The percussion is slowed down much more than the previous tracks and the drummer stays away from the snare drum, opting for cymbals and rim clicks. The guitar with the wah-wah pedal and synths try to capture the sounds of bubbles which adds an ethereal feel.
A slow synth ambient effortlessly builds up tensions in waves as the track progresses. Herbie masterfully builds and breaks tension with the synths while continuing conversations between the harpsichord and the guitar.
About a minute and forty seconds into the song the saxophone keeps a soft tone calling back to the tunes of Miles Davis (In particular, the saxophone reminds me of Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way which we will definitely get to in a later article). Meanwhile, Herbie includes a couple electric piano arpeggios to add to the bubble effect.
Five minutes into the track a couple interesting synthesizers fade in and out, sounding like blaring UFOs taking over the whole symphony. Meanwhile the steady groove continues along with the saxophone. As the steady groove starts fading out, an unfocused array of synthesizers mimicking the sound of rain droplets or marbles, very similar to the beginning of the track, echo until the song’s end.
Man-Child, Herbie Hancock’s 1975 Jazz fusion/ funk album is an album that speaks a lot about American music in the early 1970s. Jazz was proclaimed a “dead” genre of music and electronic styles came to dominate casual music venues. Steady funk rhythms changed the role of percussion and paved the way for standard rhythms found within hip hop. Herbie perfects this new sounds but still continues the improvisational and acoustic traditions found in the sounds of Jazz where he began as a young musician.
Listen to Man-Child here: