Yesterday morning I had a strong craving for Herbie Mann. No, not the shirtless Herbie Mann with the flute over his shoulder or the Herbie Mann with the Panama hat in the beach chair or Our Mann Flute. I'm talking about the pre-1961 Mann, the hip Mann, the swinging Mann who made the jazz flute cool and played on some of the niftiest small- and large-group jazz sessions of the 1950s.
As you can see, just writing the name "Herbie Mann" conjures up images of beatniks, van Dykes, bongos and aging hipsters in gray sweatshirts and Jack Purcells. But while he certainly is guilty of recording his share of bland fare in the 1960s and beyond, Mann's recordings in the 1950s for Savoy, Prestige, Coral, Bethlehem, EmArcy, Riverside and other labels featured inventive combinations of sidemen and straight-up playing.
One of my favorite Herbie Mann albums from this period is Just Wailin' (Prestige). Recorded on February 14 1958 (yep, 50 years ago this month), Mann was accompanied by Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, Kenny Burrell on guitar, Mal Waldron on piano, George Joyner on bass and Arthur Taylor on drums. It's a terrific session with strong individualists who together created a breezy, harmonic, bluesy album.
Mann's recording career dates back to April 1953, when he appeared on flute and tenor sax with accordionist Mat Mathews—a quintet that featured bassist Percy Heath and drummer Kenny Clarke. In September 1954, Mann recorded on Ralph Burns' Winter Sequence for MGM, an important date that exposed him to top-rank players such as Joe Wilder, Kai Winding, Billy Bauer and Oscar Pettiford.
Mann's first big break came a month later in October 1954, when he appeared with Mat Mathews and Mundell Lowe on Carmen McRae's initial record date for Bethlehem. Mann's clean, swinging playing on the McRae date led to work on Sarah Vaughan's most ambitious jazz album of the period for EmArcy Records that featured trumpeter Clifford Brown, tenor saxophonist Paul Quinichette and drummer Roy Haynes. Mann's modernist flute solos lightened the session and still stand out.
Mann's first leadership date was Flamingo (Bethlehem) in June 1955, and in September Ralph Burns used him again on his Jazz Studio Five album, which was part of an experimental Decca series that gave arrangers full control of their recording session.
In October 1955, Mann joined flutist Sam Most for a Bethlehem date, and then recorded a string of albums for the label through March 1956.
In June 1956, Mann recorded on Oscar Pettiford's Manhattan Jazz Septette, which put him in the company of jazz's top leaders and session men of the time—including arranger Manny Albam, trombonist Urbie Green, saxophonist Hal McKusick, pianist Eddie Costa, guitarist Barry Galbraith, bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Osie Johnson. In September he recorded on Erroll Garner's Misty session for Columbia arranged by Nat Pierce.
In the fall of 1956, Mann toured extensively in Sweden and the Netherlands. Upon his return to New York at year's end, Mann recorded a few albums with Mat Mathews, including Music for Suburban Living (Coral), with Joe Puma on guitar and Whitey Mitchell on bass. Mann's first "world music" album, Gone Native, was recorded in February 1957, which led immediately to Art Blakey's Orgy in Rhythm in March, featuring a range of Latin percussionists.
That same month, Mann recorded his first Prestige album, Flute Souffle, that included saxophonist Bobby Jasper and pianist Tommy Flanagan.
Mann's prolific output in 1957 helped establish the flute as jazz's new hot instrument, and its mischievous sound would quickly become associated with the Beat poets, writers and Greenwich Village cafes. Between March and September 1957, Mann recorded nearly 20 albums for Verve, Capitol, Riverside, Savoy and other labels.
Just Wailin' came in February 1958, after a brief recording break at end of 1957. Bringing together Mann, Rouse and Burrell [pictured] was a terrific idea that worked beautifully. You hear Rouse's strong tenor smoothed out on top by Mann's flute and enhanced on the bottom by Burrell's round-sound guitar. In addition, all of the album's tracks are blues of one sort or another, giving the record a concept-album feel. It also doesn't hurt that Mal Waldron [pictured below], George Joyner and Art Taylor are in the rhythm section.
The first two tunes—Waldron's Minor Groove and Blue Echo—are both minor-key blues. Burrell's Blue Dip also is a minor blues—but with a 2/4 feel. Mann's extended solo here—and on other tracks—remains refreshingly hip. He sounds and feels both cool, transparent and unconventional, working simply on novel ideas and using space to his advantage. There's something about Mann's playing on this date that always makes me want to hear more.
Waldron's Gospel Truth is a call-and-response blues taken
at a slower, revival-meeting pace. Jumpin' With Symphony Sid, the album's only jazz standard, is interpreted as a puckish, uptempo blues. Mann takes the first solo and is followed by Burrell. Both efforts are trim and melodic. When Rouse [pictured] joins in, he injects a leathery texture that creates a terrific contrast.
Cal Massey's Trinidad closes out the album and is the date's most daring tune. Upbeat and bright, the song opens with a polyrhythmic Caribbean beat and then springs into a straight-ahead blues.
Like the album I featured yesterday (Presenting Red Mitchell), Just Wailin' captures musicians in transition. By February 1957, Waldron's eight-month period as Billie Holiday's accompanist was winding down in tandem with Billie's deteriorating health. Four days after Just Wailin', Waldron recorded on Billie's Lady in Satin. Waldron was painfully aware of Billie's condition and was starting to branch out by February 1958.
Rouse, by contrast, was at the threshold of a great adventure: Later that year, in the fall, he would embark on a long, fruitful period accompanying Thelonious Monk. His confidence on Just Wailin' is already strong, and his ideas are whip-sharp.
As for Mann, after Just Wailin', he recorded Legrand Jazz in
June 1958, which featured an all-star group including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Barry Galbraith, Jerome Richardson and Phil Woods. From 1958 through 1961, Mann recorded on albums led by Chet Baker, Machito, Billy Taylor and others.
Then in April 1961, Mann's recorded Family of Mann for Atlantic Records, after which he pretty much went over to the other side. His post-1961 record titles included Do the Bossa Nova with Herbie Mann, Latin Fever, My Kinda Groove, A Mann & A Woman and Our Mann Flute.
Just Wailin' was the last pure Herbie Mann-led jazz album. Less than three years later, Mann would drift away from jazz and make albums that, in some cases, were little more than music to do dishes by.
JazzWax tracks: Just Wailin' isn't available at iTunes but it is available on CD here. By the way, if you're having trouble making out the artwork on the cover, it features two merry-go-round horses whinnying (or wailin').