The soundtrack to my summer has been provided by Herbie Mann. His 1969 record, Memphis Underground, has had a lot of fans before me. In particular, this is purported to be the favorite jazz album of the late Hunter S. Thompson due, in large part, to the 7+ min jazz fusion psychedelia of the album's closer the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." What separates this record from some of your other experiences with fusion is the instrumentation. Because Mann excels in that instrument which has become a Millennial's laughing-stock: jazz flute.
Okay, good, now that we've gotten that out of the way. Contrary to Farrell's parody, there's something incredibly hip about Mann's record. The opener and title track "Memphis Underground" is undergirded by a slick R&B style percussion lick that Mann's flute bobs around with panache. "Memphis Underground" provides the blueprint that this record exploits. Though the formula is very clearly jazz-based, the recording and sound pays homage to R&B and Soul records. In fact, of the 5 tracks of the record, 3 were originally recorded by soul artists -- "New Orleans," "Hold On, I'm Coming," and the classic "Chain of Fools." Mann's particular genius was in his alchemical creations. Not only in reimagining patriotic standards like "Battle Hymn" or in jazzing soul standards, but in his exploitation of numerous sounds. Later records would find Mann bridging out into reggae, Afro-cuban jazz, Middle Eastern music, and recording at the famous Muscle Shoals studio. One of my favorite collabs of Mann not on this record is his partnership with João Gilberto on Recorded in Rio where this bossa nova standard, "One Note Samba" takes flight:
Memphis Underground isn't just a showcase for Mann, however. It's lineup is stellar including Roy Ayers on vibraphone and Larry Coryell on guitar. The later's album Spaces with John McLaughlin & Chick Korea will no doubt provide another installation of WLFY Finds. Perhaps the best combo of the three is on "Memphis Underground" where Ayers vibes and Coryell's guitar stick to the groove and their solos are nicely reigned in by Mann's orchestration. In too many fusion albums, solos are given free reign and seem to, by their end, have nothing to do with where the track had begun. Here, the emphasis on connection to the groove keeps everything locked and tight.
Mann's influence & hipness can be attested to by his collaboration with, for my money, one of the greatest "cooler than you are or will ever be" bands of all time, Stereolab, who turned to Mann for their reworking of "One Note Samba" (listen to original above):
For a series which will hopefully shed some light on forgotten records, artists, songs, and even forms of music, there's not much of a better place to start than Herbie Mann's glorious Memphis Underground. As with many finds, it might not be your cup of tea, but this 1969 album is definitely worth a listen. My advice is wait till late afternoon, make a cocktail, and let this blare. Don't forget, if you're listening, use #wlfyfinds to talk about what you're hearing.