Vernon Reid on Mwandishi
Bob Gluck: What were your first experiences of hearing Herbie’s playing? How did you respond? What did it mean to you?
Vernon Reid: I got turned on to Mr. Hancock by my friend and Brooklyn Tech classmate, pianist and composer Raymond Jones (Chic, Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Chaka Khan). We were both members of the Tech afterschool jazz workshop led by Mr. Gene Ghee, who played saxophone with Sam Rivers. I recall that I was pretty much overwhelmed by Herbie’s depth and technique. I loved his tunes from the start. The Jazz Workshop played “Maiden Voyage” my very first time on stage.
BG: Did you get to see the Mwandishi band perform? If so, where and when? What do you remember about it? If not, when did you first hear their recordings?
VR: Unfortunately, I was too young to see the Mwandishi band live. Older guys who were very into Miles told me to check out Miles’s “children”—Zawinul, Shorter, Corea, Hancock, Jarrett, etc. I came to find that all of these artists had well established careers before they became associated with Miles Davis. However, their contact with Miles utterly transformed their various approaches to composition and improvisation. Herbie Hancock’s post Miles work really reflects this—the use of modal/static harmony, the emphasis on grooves, the experimentation with the newest music technology (i.e. the Countryman phase-shifter Herbie used to alter the sound of his Fender Rhodes electric piano, which was itself a subject of great controversy). I remember that a fissure opened between the generations of older and younger jazz artists at that time; all of our teachers were mad at the students they had before us. Strange times.
BG: Which of the recordings were most important to you? In what ways? Why did they matter?
VR: I became aware of Mwandishi as a kind of outgrowth of ’70s era Black Power Consciousness—the fact that the band members all took Swahili names and dedicated a song to Angela Davis was very connected to the anti-Vietnam, anti-Aparthied, anti-police-brutality activism that was the tenor of the times. There was still a great deal of rage over the King and X assassinations when Mwandishi was formed—Mwandishi played what felt like a powerful soundtrack to an American Season of Discontent before Herbie formed the rather less politically charged Head Hunters band.
BG: How did the band influence aspects of your own music making?
VR: Mwandishi’s combination of richly woven Afrocentric ideas with advancing music technology had a powerful effect on me. The fact that Mwandishi took on the concept of the Double Consciousness discussed by DuBois and, at least for a time, took on sociopolitical ideas and was progressively pushing at the boundaries of jazz expression has a powerful relationship to the work that I’ve done with Living Colour, Masque, and the Yohimbe Brothers. They helped to lead the way forward.
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