MISS FREE SPIRIT
Atlantic/Embryo : 1970
HM, flute; Sonny Sharrock, guitar; Roy Ayers, vibes, keyboards; Miroslav Vitous, bass; Ron Carter, bass;Â Bruno Carr, drums; Selwart Clarke, string arr.
The late Herbie Mann had an ear for new talent and the latest trend. In the mid-1970s this got him in some disco trouble, but at the time of Stone Flute Mann had the good taste to pick up on what Miles Davis’ group was laying down. Sounding something likeÂ Mademoiselle MabryÂ and Madame George meeting cute in L.A. just before Brian Eno moved to town, Mann’sÂ musicÂ here finds beauty in stasis and the slightest bit of dissonance.
His masterwork, Stone Flute is completely unlike anything else in Mann’s canon. PotentiallyÂ a bandwagon-hopping attempt to cop the coolÂ vibes ofÂ In a Silent Way, or a crass move to cash in on the psychedelic vogue and capture the attention ofÂ consciousness-addled rock fans (“Stone Flute? No, dude, more like stoned flute!”), it might as well be the work of a different artist. Diehard Herbie Mann fans hate it, but for those who usually can’t stand the man’s music, or are simply opposed on principle, it’s his one shining moment.Â
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When weÂ first encountered the album, the idea of Herbie Mann covering the Beatles made our skin crawl. Especially since the instrumental from Magical Mystery Tour is one of our fave Fab Four compositions and one of their very finest slices of psychedelia. It’s a forward-looking, loping tune that anticipates Stereolab, among other things.Â Mann’s approachÂ is to slow down its pulse. The band plays the song at a glacial pace, real slo-core, stretching the track’s textures to the point of almost pure abstraction. They strip away much of the riff and melody, keeping it just barely recognizable. The approach may seem odd at first, but give it a few spins.
“Flying” is one of the very few excellent (adventurous) jazz covers of a rock song from the era. Actually, we can’t seem to think of any others. Surely we’re missing some? Or maybe the trend of covering rock tunes didn’t reenter the jazz vernacular until folks like Brad Meldhau and the Bad Plus took their stab at it?Â
In addition to snatching Ron Carter after his stint in Miles’ band, Mann had the good sense to employ Sonny Sharrock. Around this time, Herbie also produced Sonny’sÂ debut, the dazzling and strange Black Woman, and can hardly be accused of watering down Sonny’s vision. Another feather in his cap.
Sharrock’s contribution to “Miss Free Spirit” is restrained but rich in detail, and helps point the way out. The tune gets stranger and stranger as it rolls along, and is further evidence that Mann is best served when supplying texture and not moving forward terribly much. Tunesmithery is not his strong suit. Brings to mind, too,Â author James Ellroy’s comment in the most recent New York Times magazine that “if [he] could abolish one concept from the parlance, it would be closure.” Closure is the last thing Mann needs.Â Exhibit C would be the strings that come out of nowhere for the last two mintues or so of “Miss Free Spirit,” where, despite a fairly straightforward theme recap,Â the going gets weird.
Whatever misguided intentionsÂ or dreams of trendy sell-out may lurk behind the album’s origins, the results are surprisingly compelling and uncompromising, and still sound strange decades later. In another context, the orchestral flourishes and fuzzed-out bass might sound gimmicky, but here they organically slot into the overall sound. The Mann ofÂ Stone Flute isÂ a rare example of someone doing his best artistic work while following the trends of the time. The strange ways of the muse. Something we’ll try to recall the next time we curse the commercial impulse.
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We probably won’t feature too many Billboard Top 200 artists here, nor very many Beatles covers, so enjoy it while you can. Meanwhile, if you’re not curious about one bit of inspiration for the post title, avert your eyes.