Herbie Mann - flute, alto saxophone; Johnny Rae - vibraphone, marimba, percussion; Nabil "Knobby" Totah - bass; Rudy Collins - drums; Ray Mantilla - conga; Guest: Michael Babatunde Olatunji - percussion
A world music pioneer, flutist, and native New Yorker, Herbie Mann broke in with various bebop groups before making his first trip abroad on a 1959 US State Department-sponsored tour of Africa. That excursion altered his musical course for all time, leading Mann into a lifetime of bringing Brazilian, Cuban, African, and other world music influences into his pan-cultural jazz aesthetic.
Mann's Afro-Jazz Sextet kicks off its Saturday afternoon set with a lively rendition of Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas," a calypso-flavored number given more of an Afro-Cuban treatment on the head, before shifting into the straight-ahead swinging section for Johnny Rae's bop-fueled vibraphones solo. Ray Mantilla's churning conga work and Rae's clave pulse on the cowbell returns the piece to an Afro-Cuban groove before Mann solos over another 4/4 swing section, paced by Knobby Totah's walking bass and Collins' insistent ride cymbal work. Shifting nimbly back and forth between straight-ahead and Afro-Cuban, this concert opener deftly bridges both worlds. Bassist Totah also contributes a vibrant arco solo which is followed by a whirlwind jam by the percussive battery of Mantilla and Collins.
For the entrancing 12/8 "Bedouin," a piece from Mann's African Suite of 1959, they introduce such exotic instruments as the marimba from Mozambique, Nigerian drums, Japanese flute, and "finger cymbals from Henry Adler's" (a popular percussion store at the time in midtown Manhattan). African drumming master Michael Babatunde Olatunji, joins the group here on djembe drum while Rae mans the marimba and Mann blows on the high-pitched Japanese flute. Olatunji had the previous year released Drums of Passion, the first African album recorded in a United States studio. He later played at John Coltrane's final live performance in Harlem on April 23, 1967, the same year he appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival with a 12-piece percussion orchestra. Olatunji would gain international celebrity as a world music ambassador and in his later years attracted younger audiences through his Planet Drum collaborations with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. But he was first introduced to American audiences at this 1960 Newport appearance with Mann.
Mann's Newport set continues with "Uhuru," the last movement of the "Evolution of Jazz Suite" from his 1960 recording Common Ground. The title is a Swahili word for "freedom" and as Mann explains to the Newport crowd, "It's what we heard shouted all over Africa" (presumably during their 1959 State Department-sponsored tour). A swinging 6/8 number that features Mann on alto sax instead of his usual flute, it is propelled by the percolating undercurrent of Mantilla's conga work, Olatunji's African drumming, and Collins' nimble pulse on the drum kit. Olatunji also adds Yoruban vocals to the mix, and midway through the rhythmically-charged piece, Mann switches from sax to flute and soars boldly over the deep groove.
"Todos Locos" (from 1959's Flautista!) is an infectious, up-tempo Latin flavored romp fueled by the churning hand percussion in tandem with Collins' drumming. Mann digs in and blows with rare abandon while Rae offers a scintillating vibes solo on the energized, clave-fueled set-closer, which receives a wild ovation from the Newport crowd. The response is so overwhelming, in fact, that Mann and his crew are invited back for an encore. As Mann tells the crowd, "We should be going back to New York but I told the club owner, 'If we're not there by 9:30, start playing records.'" They continue with another exhilarating number, "Brazilian Soft Shoe," culminating in a heightened percussion jam to conclude the Sunday afternoon performances. Mann would become a perennial crowd favorite at future Newport Jazz Festivals and would bring in equally adventurous and exotic ensembles with each appearance.
A Brooklyn native, Mann was born Herbert Jay Solomon on Apr 16, 1930. He started off on clarinet at age nine, inspired by Benny Goodman, before switching over to tenor sax and flute. After a stint in the Army, he got his first professional experience with Mat Mathews' Quintet in 1953 before stepping out as a leader in his own right the following year. From 1954 to 1958, Mann collaborated with several like-minded young beboppers on the scene, including alto saxophonist Phil Woods, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse and fellow flutist Sam Most. In 1959, he formed his Afro-Jazz Sextet and embarked on US State Department-sponsored tours of Africa and Brazil. He returned to Brazil in 1962 to record a bossa nova album with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Baden Powell. Through the '60s, Mann employed several promising young players who would later go on to lead their own bands, including pianist Chick Corea, vibist Roy Ayers and guitarists Atilla Zoller, Larry Coryell and Sonny Sharrock, bassist Miroslav Vitous, and drummer Billy Cobham. He scored a hit in 1969 with Memphis Underground, which featured guitarists Coryell and Sharrock, bassists Donald "Duck" Dunn and Chuck Rainey, and drummers Al Jackson and Bernard Purdie and was recorded at the American Recording Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. He followed that success with 1971's Push Push, which featured guitarist Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band.
By the 1970s, Mann began crossing over into more commercial areas, incorporating elements of pop, rock, funk, reggae and even disco into his recordings for the Atlantic label. He gradually returned to jazz in the '80s and formed his own label in the '90s, Kokopelli Records. He passed away in Santa Fe, New Mexico on July 1, 2003, following an extended battle with prostate cancer. His last record was 2004's posthumously released Beyond Brooklyn for Telarc. (Milkowski)