Watermelon Man, OR: Possibilities II

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.

Possibilities

The other day I was watching, for the third time, one of my favorite documentaries, Possibilities.  It covers the making of Herbie Hancock’s 2005 album of the same name, and I highly recommend seeing it if you haven’t already, especially if you’re not familiar with Herbie and his work.  No one album can show all the versatility of his creative talents, but Possibilities can be a good place to start because it shows the way Herbie acts as a catalyst for the exploration of new sounds.  The guest artists range from pop stars to young soul singers to relatively unknown instrumentalists who have garnered much less recognition than they deserve.

It was actually while listening to the part of the documentary dedicated to an artist who doesn’t appear on the album that I really started thinking about an issue that’s been bothering me for some time: the role of new technology in music.  Brian Eno, like Herbie, has successfully integrated all kinds of cutting edge technology in his work.  But why do I so easily use the descriptive “successfully” for these artists while I hesitate to apply it to so many others?  Is it because they have been able to master the use of the tools better than some?  Or perhaps because they are more creative in their application of such?  It occurred to me that for some musicians, and even vocalists, new technologies are toys.  For our Possibilities musicians, they are instruments.  Even pianos and violins were new “technologies” once, but they have been studied, played and developed into finely tuned tools of sound.  Whether digital and other technologies will follow the same pattern, we can’t yet know, of course, but a lot of the importance of instruments has to do with how they are treated.

These reflections gave rise to another question: which quality is more important for musical greatness, mastery or versatility?  This is a bigger question than the latter one, and though I might be tempted to lean in the direction of mastery, I can’t discount versatility.  Brian Eno and Herbie Hancock are perfect examples of both.  Maybe our answer is that we shouldn’t want, or need, to choose.