Read Herbie Mann's profile from National Public Radio's
April 19, 2000.
The Denver Post Online
January 17, 1998
Herbie Mann knows no limits
By Jeff Bradley ,Denver Post Critic-at-Large
Jan. 18 - In jazz, as in life, being a free spirit means living without fear.
Looking back on four decades in music as he prepares to play at Vartan's nightclub Friday and Saturday nights, that's how Herbie Mann defines his career as a popularizer of the jazz flute.
"Many people who are creative fear failure, but a lot of people also fear success because then they have to explain what they did to their peers. So it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why say in one moment, "Isn't this great? I can do whatever I want,' and in the other, "but there are limitations.'
"If you can't take a chance and go out on a limb . . . ''
By taking risks, Mann made the flute a mainstream component of jazz and helped introduce Americans to World Music.
Born Herbert Jay Solomon in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1930, he started on the clarinet and tenor sax but found his individual voice on the flute in combination with Latin percussionists such as Olatunji, Candido, Ray Barretto and Willie Bobo.
Starting in 1959 with his Afro-Jazz Septet and heavily influenced by a 1961 tour of Brazil, Mann offered listeners strongly rhythmic arrangements in which his flute floated above the ensemble. Later explorations brought Asian, Middle Eastern and Caribbean elements into his playing, while he remained anchored in bop, blues and danceable rhythms - including the disco hit "Hi-Jack'' in 1975.
Albums such as "At the Village Gate'' (1962), "Memphis Underground'' (1969) and "Reggae'' (1974) offered both new sounds and accessibility. At least 25 Herbie Mann albums have made the top 200 pop charts, success denied most of his jazz peers.
"I grew up seeing Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Bud Powell and all these great people with their self-limitations and the drug thing,'' Mann said.
"I always said, "Why do you have to play for 100 people? Why can't you play for 10,000 people?' I never saw the limitations.
"So when I go into a project, I always think of it as the best it could possibly be. Winning awards and being incredibly successful takes the same amount of effort. It's a mental process that you do. Why not think about hitting a grand slam home run in the bottom of the ninth that wins the last game of the World Series? Why mess with a bunt single?
"Jazz probably will never be a mass music because it takes too much investment for the public. The public thinks if you have a laugh track on TV, you don't have to think it's funny. It's the fast-food mentality. People who invest more and risk being different are always going to be a minority.''
When it comes to the birth of World Music, Mann gives credit where it's due - trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's Afro-Cuban collaborations in the mid-1940s with Cuban drummer Chano Pozo.
"But that was all just Afro-Cuban, which is like saying you can only have one dish on the smorgasbord table, especially for a flute player where there is no jazz tradition,'' Mann said.
"There was a flute tradition in Latin music, and after I found that was a little too simplistic, I started looking elsewhere and it was everywhere - every civilization, every musical tradition has flute and drum music.
"I always thought, "Why shouldn't you enjoy yourself and why should you limit yourself to any one diet?' So I went to Brazil, Africa, Jamaica, and all these things had validity for me. When I brought (Nigerian drummer) Olatunji to Birdland and they saw his robes, it turned the place inside out.''
Despite all this talk of global music, the album Mann is most proud of is "Peace Pieces: The Music of Bill Evans,'' a straight-ahead CD recorded in 1995 for his former Kokopelli label and just reissued on Lightyear (distributed by Warner Bros.).
With arrangements by Bob Freedman and Sy Johnson, and with longtime Evans sideman Eddie Gomez on drums, Randy Brecker on flugelhorn, Bruce Dunlap on guitar and Lewis Nash on drums, Mann pays tribute to the late poet of the jazz piano, with whom he recorded the album "Nirvana'' in 1962. Some of the exquisite flute choir tracks required dozens of overdubs before he got it right.
"I probably invested more time and thought into this recording than anything else I've ever done,'' he said. "I love all the musicians playing on it. The last straight-ahead record I made was "Nirvana,' so I really wanted to work on it and plan it and pick the guys. I really felt it was time to put to rest all those statements by people who say that I'm not really a player, I'm a populist. There are those purists who say if you don't play Charlie Parker or bebop, you're not playing music. Unfortunately, they have the platform to present their one-dimensional views.''
Also just out from Lightyear are Mann's "America/Brasil'' and "65th Birthday Celebration,'' both recorded live at the Blue Note in New York in 1995 and featuring handpicked musical friends such as Claudio Roditi, Paquito D'Rivera, Bobby Watson, Tito Puente, Ron Carter, Olatunji, David Newman, Brecker and Gomez in high-spirited versions of favorites such as "Memphis Underground,'' "Au Private'' and "Peri's Scope'' plus some Brazilian jazz.
"I just decided that at 65 when most people think about retiring, I was only starting and trying to be the best I can be.''
Eight years ago, Mann moved to Santa Fe with his wife, the actress Susan Janeal Arison. "We just got fed up with New York City and didn't think the pluses outweighed the negatives,'' the flutist said from his New Mexico home. "We'd been here separately and together, and she just said, "You have only one life, so why don't we go to the best place we know?' It was the second-best decision I ever made,'' said the loving husband.
His only disappointment in Santa Fe was the failure two years ago of his partnership in Kokopelli Records. "It was costing me sleep and my health, and I said the best thing to do is to get out.''
Mann will perform at Vartan's, 1800 Glenarm Place, with Milcho Leviev on piano, Claudio Slon on drums and bassist Dwight Kilian bass. Shows are at 8 and 10 p.m. Call 399-1111 for reservations.
The News & Observer
Thursday June 19, 1997
Flutist's appeal transcends time
Concert Review: Herbie Mann
BY OWEN CORDLE, Correspondent
RALEIGH -- I gained a new respect for Herbie Mann while watching him perform Tuesday night at Cappers. In the past 20 years, it has been fashionable to join the critical chorus that other flutists have more technique, that Mann is a popularizer, that he belongs to an earlier era and is pass. While all this is true (except the part about being pass), none of it strikes a mortal blow to his hipness and appeal.
Mann is a superb groove merchant. Funk, straight-ahead, bebop, Brazilian rhythms, the New Orleans second-line beat -- all are his province. He and his various bands have always delivered an undulating groove, with Mann's flute bubbling on top.
The flute requires a more percussive breath attack than other woodwind instruments. This makes it a natural companion of drums. Mann mines this connection infectiously with New Orleans drummer Ricky Sebastian. The drummer's syncopated interplay among bass drum, snare drum and cymbals was worth your focus Tuesday night -- if not to try to figure out how Sebastian does it, then just to appreciate the backbone of Mann's performance.
Sergio Brandao's electric bass gave a supple melodic complement to the beat. Pianist Mark Soskin, who has previously appeared in the Triangle with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, showed more of his talent with Mann. There were his Bill Evans-tinged melodic bursts on Evans' "Peri's Scope," his Thelonious Monk-like accents and dissonance on Charlie Parker's "Au Privave," and his tricky jabs and silences on Mann's funky "Memphis Underground."
The quartet also played several Brazilian tunes, reminders that Mann was one of the first jazz musicians to adopt the bossa nova in the early '60s. Whether the tune is a swaying ballad with held notes or a festive rhythm tune with a percolating melody, Mann finds his groove and embellishes it.
Mann mentioned that his last gig in Raleigh was at the Frog and Nightgown in the late '60s. Actually, he performed at Stewart Theatre in 1977 and at Memorial Auditorium with the N.C. Symphony in 1992. The quality of his performance at Cappers far exceeded those two shows.
Copyright © 1997 The News and Observer Publishing Company
Raleigh, North Carolina
Forget what you may think you know about Herbie Mann, the flutist who waged art-vs.-commerce wars long before the current controversy over the hot tub-ready pop-jazz format was a blip on the cultural screen. Mann, with an 80+ title discography and, with Memphis Underground, one of the handful of hugely popular jazz albums in history, knows first-hand the embrace of public acclaim and the concurrent sting of critical barbs.
But with Mann's atypical new release, Peace Pieces, on his own Kokopelli label, another side of the musician emerges. Here, the point of departure is the late, great Bill Evans, with whom Mann played and recorded in the '60s, and whose music provides the basis for Mann's most mainstream-ish jazz recording in years. In discussing his new release, Mann seems cognizant that there is a score to be settled.
The affable flutist explains that he "worked harder on this record than any I've ever made, because I knew that the first studio record I was going to do for this label had to be a statement, that now I fully intend to be a very good flute player and to get respect from those people who used to fluff me off as a dilettante who played everything that was popular, even though in many of the instances, I helped make the genre popular in the first place."
These days, you can find 65-year-old Mann, with a new label of his own and a new lease on artistic life, in the idyllic environs of Santa Fee, where he and his wife moved six years ago. Though he was born as Herbert Solomon in Brooklyn in 1930 and spent decades in New York City, Mann headed out west motivated by "basic hatred for New York. Even though I lived there my whole life, for 59 years before I moved here, for various reasons, we felt that it was just a little bit too much to handle.
"You always go away for the weekends to the country. I've always loved that. I went to Switzerland when I was 18 and in the army. I said, 'there's something more to the world than concrete.' Unfortunately, before my current wife, I never married a romantic before. I had to suppress those desires and needs for things for the soul rather than whatever it is that people think cities are good for," he laughs.
One thing that Santa Fe seems to have imparted to Mann is a new energy. If anything, at this point, Mann seems to be retiring from retirement. He has settled into life between the coasts, playing, producing and tending the growing homefires of Kokopelli, which he too modestly refers to as "a Mama-Papa business---an adobe industry.
"Ever since Atlantic and I parted company in 1979 after a 20-year relationship, I thought about the necessity to make my own records, because I didn't feel that, based on my reputation, that any label would give me the attention and the care that I wanted. When you're a best-selling crowd-pleaser, that's great, until the coach of the team gets fired and a new coach comes in and wants to get his own offensive line.
"In all the major labels, the people in charge of jazz are in a very funny position. They're probably fans who have their own agenda of how to defeat the obvious limitations of what creative music can sell. The jazz world's potential sales certainly diminished with the evolution of million-seller pop artists. In the '60s, when I had the Village Gate album and the Memphis Underground album, a pop record that went gold was considered very good. And when my records approached that level, I was, for a moment, in the same arena, as far as the sales and promotion people were concerned. But now that you've got records that sell 22 million copies, who's going to pay attention?"
After ending his long association with Atlantic---recently summarized by the 2-CD set The Evolution of Mann on Rhino/Atlantic---Mann found himself suddently cut off from the machinery of making records, and the resultant live work that flows therefrom. After going through abortive brushes with independent labels, Mann founded Kokopelli as a way of reentering the recording world on his own terms. A year and a half ago, Jim Geisler, formerly of Amazing records, moved to Santa Fe to help Mann run the label and help make it a higher profile operation.
Being in charge of an artist-run label has its share of logistical and managerial headaches, but, on the other hand, Mann relates, "it certainly allows you to eliminate the paranoia of what the record company might be doing to you when you're doing it to yourself."
Mann has long been one to keep his hands in more than just the playing end of the music business. While he was at Atlantic, he took it upon himself to branch out into other areas of the music industry. "I felt that just being a player, you set yourself up for other people to take advantage of you. I felt that producing, publishing, packaging, marketing, advertising, accounting---all those things were part of completing the education. They allowed me to go to school, and they paid the tuition, because I was selling records. Rather than just putting all the money in my pocket, I used it for post-graduate work. I learned the business. So, for me, running my own label is a natural evolution."
For his part during his Atlantic years, Mann ran the Embryo and Vortex labels and his production credits include Chick Corea's first album, Tones for Joan's Bones, Miroslav Vitous' Mountains in the Clouds, recordings by Roy Ayers, Ron Carter and, yes, the late avant jazz guitar icon Sonny Sharrock.
What was the People's Choice flute hero doing dealing with the fringe-hugging Sharrock? Mann notes, "people always said to me 'what are you doing with this guitar player? What does he have to do with 'Coming Home Baby.' I would say, 'well, obviously, you don't know me, because if you knew me, you'd know that people who are individuals and who are unique are more important than anything else, because there are very few of them. It's just going to make my music more interesting.' They'd say 'well, that's not music. That's not jazz.' I'd say 'well, define music. Define jazz.'"
Mann may well have used this same retort for many years, in response to the criticisms that his music was overly simplistic and pandering to the tastes of extra-jazz listeners. Does Mann feel that he has been unfairly typecast over the years?
"Oh, totally. It's very easy. It's like discrimination. Everybody needs a scapegoat. so, it's real easy: I was the Kenny G of the '60s---even though Kenny is a far better player than I was in the '60s. The fact remains that the purists, who are very territorial about what they perceive is their music, hate it when anybody sells more and has a bigger public. You can well understand why Helen Keene would hate me, because I'd follow Bill Evans and you'd have 10,000 people dancing and applauding and giving a standing ovation, after he'd play a great set which didn't belong in a festival. So I can understand that.
"Yet, on the other hand, you can't spend your life worrying about what this person or that purist perceives what your agenda is like, because only you know what it is. It's been a double-edged sword---success and crowd-pleasing. But I just figured it was on-the-job training. Now that I'm 65, I'm getting serious and playing other music."
Mann recorded with Evans in the early '60s, on an album called Nirvana, soon after Mann's hugely popular Live at the Village Gate recording. Ironically, the Evans collaboration came out of a desire to establish artistic integrity, not unlike the motivation for his new Evans tribute.
Mann recalls that "already, I was beginning to have this conflict, thinking that every once in a while I should make a record that wouldn't be a best-seller but would be something that I wanted to do musically. My taste is a lot broader than everybody thinks it is. But in retrospect, I was embarrassed by my playing on the record, because he was so wonderful and I didn't consider myself a very good player at the time."
Did Mann feel alienated from the conservative, acoustic jazz scene that began to take hold in the '80s? "No, actually, listening to the adult contemporary stations did that. I started saying 'why are these guys recording and I don't have a record contract?' Then I realized that all it was was sit-com, CNN, USA Today mentality. It was a diluting of everything individual and replacing it with an easily marketable vanilla version of everything.
"When the purists say 'jazz is saved because this young guy is playing John Coltrane music,' the statement is a hair strong, because, as wonderful as the players are---and they know it more than anybody else---how many different ways can you play? There hasn't be a John Coltrane or a Miles Davis to come along, which is the most difficult thing in music. So they've perfected the idioms."
With Peace Pieces, Mann sought to pay tribute to one of his heroes, while also focusing on repertoire cut from the mainstream jazz swath, apart from his more characteristic R&B and Latin-based music. Paying homage to Evans, Mann says, "I knew that I couldn't have a piano player on the record. How do you do that? Who do you get, and if you get them, what are they going to do, emulate Bill's style?" He wound up using guitarist Bill Dunlop, a signee to the label; Evans alumnus, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Lewis Nash, with cameos by such players as percussionist Sammy Gigueroa and Randy Brecker---another artist slated to record for Kokopelli.
Something about Mann's flute treatment of the Evans music is often complementary to the intent of the material. "First of all," Mann suggests, "Bill's music is impressionist. It also has space and it has breadth. Also, because I love it so much, it also helped with the playing. I couldn't think, really, of any other composer I could do this to except maybe Ravel."
Next up on his relase schedule is a 6-CD live recording from an all-star stint recorded at the Blue Note in New York. He plans to continue satisfying his own agenda, first and foremost. "Now that I have my own company, I just plan to do the music I want to do. There are some people who will never think of me as a 'jazz purist.' I don't concern myself with that. As long as I think I'm a complete musician, who plays everything the best I can, I will always try to play it better.
"I feel like the first 56 years of my career were basic training. I just graduated, and now that I'm grown up, I'm going to do it right. I think now is the beginning. Everything that was back there was just back there. That's why I'm really glad that Rhino put out that retrospective compilation. That was then. This is a new league."
Mann's gear: Herbie Mann plays Haynes flutes.