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Sleeping Giants: The Brief Reign and Brilliant Legacy of Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi Band

Members of Mwandishi (Herbie Hancock, Buster Williams and Billy Hart) in the early 1970s.

Fifty years ago, Herbie Hancock formed a sextet on the vanguard of electroacoustic music.

We remember it now as Mwandishi, after the title of its debut album — the first of three studio releases in as many years, during a run that has largely been overshadowed in the scope of Hancock’s career. Wedged between the curvilinear post-bop of the 1960s and the strutting jazz-funk of Head Hunters, Mwandishi embodied a distinct alignment of time and space, a moment unlikely to be replicated.

This episode of Jazz United turns a spotlight on that legacy. Mwandishi sounded equally at home in outer space as on the ground. And it was a crucial antecedent for many bands today that pursue a fiery and futuristic Afrocentrism, with jazz and funk swirling together in the mix.

During this period, the early 1970s, Hancock became a leading figure on a newfangled instrument, the Fender Rhodes piano. Mwandishi also featured an explosive front line of multireedist Bennie Maupin, trombonist Julian Priester and trumpeter Dr. Eddie Henderson. Drummer Billy Hart and bassist Buster Williams forged new rhythmic pathways, with elasticity and forward pull. (Later Hancock added Dr. Patrick Gleeson on synthesizers, and enlisted a permanent sound man, Fundi Bonner, on tour.)

It so happens that four members of the band — Hancock, Maupin, Henderson and Hart — turned 80 in 2020. Every artist in the lineup has enjoyed a major career, but we feel Mwandishi embodied a distinct alignment of time and space, a moment unlikely to be replicated. We hope you’ll join us in paying homage now.

Music Featured in This Episode:

Further Reading:

Jazz United is produced by Sarah Kerson.

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Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.
A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.