Continuing in this New Year sort of vein of Possibilities in jazz, and in all music, and in life, I turn again to a favorite artist of mine, Herbie Hancock. For some time I’ve been wanting to sit down and compare his song “Watermelon Man” between versions, but haven’t gotten around to it for months, and just recently found the time to do so. The first of the takes appeared on his debut album Takin’ Off in 1962.
The first thing I noticed was the incredible steadiness of the underbeat—it’s so grounded. The overall rhythmic structure is unwaveringly steady, and it’s not that I would expect Herbie or any of his sidemen to play out of rhythm, but the particular dedication to the beat, the living inside of it, right on the nose, gives the impression of a particularly rock-solid tempo. It’s easy to hear the musical stamp of Miles Davis, from whose side Herbie had very recently parted, and the dominance of the trumpet in parts seem to recall the echoes of a near past. Whether the effect is conscious or unconscious I couldn’t say, but either way, the influence is undeniable.
This piece also just SWINGS. It’s undeniable. And that too is a trace of Herbie’s past, his work with Miles, his earlier training, which would have placed him close to the hard bop and cool jazz movements.
The second version of “Watermelon Man” is included in Head Hunters, the groundbreaking 1973 hit that marked a vital step for the then-budding new genre of fusion jazz. It was Harvey Mason’s idea to re-record the song, and at first listen it seems like a total departure from the original. But then we listen again.
In fact, the introduction makes the tune seem more foreign than it is. Bill Summers’ beer bottles sound positively exotic, and they add to the African influence heard on the track and throughout the album. Whereas last time I talked about new technologies changing music, here we have mundane objects freshening music and, in fact, playing a role in the forging of an entirely new vein of jazz. Fusion jazz is characterized by the incorporation of funk and native African elements into post-bop, and Herbie himself cites Sly Stone as one of the inspirations for the record.
We have to recognize the fact that the beat is still there, with that same steadiness, though this time it holds a more earthy quality. It’s rooted. The bass elements are heavier. The rhythm doesn’t have the lightness to really swing like its predecessor. And that’s not its goal. While keeping the structure of the beat, it changed its nature, transforming it from a high-class statement to a low-down meditation.
The possibilities of a single tune are endless.