Infinite Spirit: Revisiting Music of the Mwandishi Band
In hindsight, the recording project Infinite Spirit would seem to have been inevitable. After all, Bob Gluck interviewed one-time Mwandishi band members for his 2012 book You'll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band; further to that, Gluck's an accomplished keyboardist in his own right and someone eminently capable of reviving the spirit of Hancock's sextet and exploring its musical vocabulary, especially with two of the band's former members, drummer Billy Hart and trumpeter Eddie Henderson, involved.
Gluck's an interesting figure for a couple of other reasons, too. He spent many years of life away from music as a rabbi, but his 2005 return to piano initiated a recommitment to music and a burgeoning career as a musician, educator, and writer; a combined interest in jazz and electronics (Stockhausen cited as one of his many influences) also makes him a natural candidate to take on a Hancock-inspired music project. Laid down on June 29, 2015 at Tedesco Studios in New Jersey, the recording sees Gluck, Henderson, Hart, and bassist Christopher Dean Sullivan not only honouring the Mwandishi band's legacy but also creating something new through their alchemical interactions. Ultimately the set is as much about the creative interplay of this particular grouping of musicians as it is Hancock.
It's fitting that the first sound we hear on “Sleeping Giant” should be Hart, even if it is Hancock's tune. The drummer's a wellspring of invention throughout, and his tom-toms and cymbals provide an expansive bed for Gluck's exotic electronic life-forms to chatter against. One could be forgiven for thinking that the quartet has somehow transported itself from a New Jersey studio to a wild remote African jungle as the material develops, even if Gluck pulls the music back to a jazzier realm when his sprawling piano solo enters at the four-minute mark. Henderson enters last, his sound initially plaintive during a free-form section and then brash and magniloquent when the music resumes its bop-inflected drive.
One of my favourite moments occurs almost nine minutes into Hancock's “You'll Know When You Get There” when a lyrical eight-chord piano motif, designed by the composer as a bridge, repeats over and over, bringing structural clarity to the piece. The episode arrives after an extended opening featuring Henderson and Gluck emoting over percussive textures and bass bowing, and eventually develops into an elaborate piano solo that invites empathetic responses from the others and an expressive bass coda by Sullivan.Not all the compositions are Hancock's: Sullivan contributes a new tune called “Spirit Unleashed”; the remaining two are compositions by one-time Hancock reedman Bennie Maupin, with the modal-flavoured “Quasar” (its 7/4 vamp introduced by the title track from Gluck's 2008 recording Sideways) coming first and “Water Torture” second. We return to the electronic jungle for “Spirit Unleashed” until an 11/4 meter and trumpet solo impose direction, after which the free-floating “Water Torture” brings the album to a loping, funkified, and sometimes dissonant close. Throughout the disc, Gluck's bold pianisms obviously evoke Hancock's playing but vestiges of McCoy Tyner and Don Pullen emerge, too. All five pieces push past the ten-minute mark, a move that allows the musicians ample opportunity to explore and stretch out. It's exactly the kind of thing material of this kind calls for, and the open-ended vibe allows for musically adventurous ensemble playing at a high level.