Album of the Week, August 27, 2022
In 1969, NBC aired a half hour television special based on the stand-up comedy of Bill Cosby. Focused on Cos’ stories of his childhood in Philadelphia, the special, called Fat Albert and Friends, was a low-budget affair, with the animators drawing directly onto the cels with grease pencils and using actual photographs of the streets of Philadelphia for backgrounds. While the special inspired the later Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids series, it has languished in the vaults since its release.
As Cos would say, I told you that story so I could tell you this one. Because, while the budget for the special was low, it featured a soundtrack by Herbie Hancock that stands as an early milestone of jazz-funk.
Herbie hadn’t been idle since leaving Miles’ quintet. He had already recorded The Prisoner, a concept album for Blue Note with a large group of players that included Joe Henderson on sax, Johnny Coles on flugelhorn, Garnett Brown on trombone, Hubert Laws on flute, Buster Williams on bass, and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums. The album, his final Blue Note recording, features the same core group (minus Laws) that came together on Fat Albert Rotunda, but featured a very different sound.
The opening track, “Wiggle-Waggle,” underscores the difference. With a blast of horns over a jangling guitar for an opening fanfare, it quickly moves into a tight, funky chart over a fat bass line that would not be out of place on a James Brown record. The core group here was augmented by a large group of session players, uncredited on the original release but including Joe Farrell on saxophone and the mighty Bernard Purdie on drums. (We’ll write more about Joe Farrell soon.) Anchoring the swirling chart is the Fender Rhodes of Herbie Hancock.
Hearing this recording, it’s hard to believe that Herbie initially approached the electric piano reluctantly. The chunky sound of the Fender in the opening track seems made for this new jazz-funk sound. It also provides most of the improvisatory energy; most of the horns stay in the charts for the whole track. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the compositional technique that Miles’s quintet began to adopt on Nefertiti, with the core group bookending relatively brief solos with frequent reprises of the main melody, surfaces again here, where it is more easily recognizable as pop-music style verse-chorus-verse writing.
The album continues throughout in this accessible vein, resulting in some of the most remarkably joyous music to come from Herbie’s pen to date. “Fat Mama” is a slow crescendo of a track building from another Buster Williams bass line and foregrounding Herbie’s piano and some rare flute work by Joe Henderson against the horns. “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” might be the most inspired cut on the album, with Johnny Coles’ flugelhorn opening setting the stage for a tender ballad, while “Tootie” Heath’s brisk drum work keeps the heartbeat of the song moving as the excitement of the bedtime story builds and recedes. “Oh! Oh! Here He Comes!” is another funk workout, serving as a theme for Fat Albert.
The one tune that entered Hancock’s repetoire longer-term is the ballad “Jessica,” here given a relatively lugubrious treatment thanks to the thick horn arrangements. He would later revisit this tune in the late 1970s with an acoustic group—we’ll hear that album another time—that stripped away some of the heavy chord voicings to reveal a plaintive melody. Here, after the tender opening, the tune drags—there is simply too much going on in the chart. It regains life in the solo, though, as Herbie uses acoustic piano for the only time on the album in a simple trio setting to explore the melody.
Shifting gears once again, the title track revisits the themes in “Oh! Oh! Here He Comes” as a funk-inflected march, with a blistering sax solo from Joe Henderson providing additional urgency. The set closes with “Little Brother,” a jovial jazz-funk workout for the same extended set of players as the opening track. Featuring some tasty guitar work throughout by the uncredited Eric Gale and Billy Butler and solos by Farrell and Herbie over Purdie’s legendary “Purdie Shuffle,” the track is a fitting romp to an unexpectedly rich and playful album.
Herbie has publicly said that he made Fat Albert Rotunda as the first album for his Warner Brothers contract to give him the artistic freedom to make more adventurous music. Perhaps. It’s undeniable that the follow up albums, Mwandishi and Crossing, are completely different and serve more as spiritual successors to In a Silent Way than to this album. (We’ll hear another album in that lineage from a different member of Miles’ quintet next time.) Still, it’s hard to hear Fat Albert Rotunda as anything but an expression of joy in music-making, however commercial it may be.
You can listen to the album here:
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