Herbie Hancock – Fat Albert Rotunda (1969)

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The period in Herbie Hancock’s work between the landmark Maiden Voyage of 1965 and the funk-jazz classic Head Hunters eight years later contains some of Hancock’s least understood and most overlooked recordings of his career. It took quite a voyage to get from “Dolphin Dance” to “Chameleon” and as is often said, the journey itself is often more interesting than the destination.

Smack dab in the middle of Hancock’s evolution from a premier post-bop stylist to a funk wunderkind, comes a soundtrack of sorts that he composed for Bill Cosby’s then-fledgling cartoon series “Fat Albert,” punningly called The Fat Albert Rotunda.

As an avid watcher of this series growing up, I don’t remember any of Hancock’s compositions on the show, but it was a very long time ago. As a grown-up listening to this more intently, it comes across as if Herbie suddenly embraced Motown and Stax style grooves, seemingly leaving behind the more cerebral (read: uncommercial) works that underpinned artier releases like Empyrean Isles.

After many listens, however, I’m more inclined to think that The Fat Albert Rotunda is in many ways a natural progression from his last two Blue Noters Speak Like A Child and The Prisoner, which found Hancock experimenting with a sextet (3 horn) configuration for the first time. On Fat Albert, he carries over the same trumpet/trombone/saxophone lineup of Johnny Coles, Garnett Brown and Joe Henderson from The Prisoner.

But it wasn’t just the horns that indicated a change in direction; Hancock also moved away from the complex song structures that are found from all the way back to My Point Of View in favor of more straightforward melodic structures. That helped paved the way for his eventual transition to rock and r&b fusion.

It also can’t be ignored that Herbie was present during Miles Davis’ two critical transition albums where straight ahead jazz morphed into fusion jazz, Filles de Kilimanjaro and In A Silent Way.

So when he got the call from Cosby to score Fat Albert in 1969, Hancock was plenty ready. Hancock had also just switched labels, over to Warner Brothers, and they were going to want a quick return on their new investment. When Cosby played the WB execs the soundtrack tapes, they—in Hancock’s words—“flipped over it.” It seemed Herbie was set on becoming a crossover star (it was a false start, not fully followed up on until after he had left Warners for Columbia, but that’s a whole ‘nother story).

Undoubtedly, Hancock use of a Fender Rhodes throughout most of the album—the first time he used electronic keyboards on his own records—is another indication of a progression beyond his prior works. Buster Williams provides electric bass on most tracks, as well, contributing further to the mainstream music feel.

But the album doesn’t start off like this at all; the strangely ominous twenty-second intro on “Wiggle-Waggle” is a sitar-sounding instrument strumming combined with Coles’ echoplexed trumpet before the signature single-note guitar line gets the groove going. Joe Henderson and Joe Newman (trumpet for this track) provide fiery solos before Hancock riffs away on the Rhodes. But the thing that gives “Wiggle-Waggle” its wiggle is that horn chart. It’s as busy and funky as anything James Brown ever did.

The closer “Lil Brother” is another number heavily influenced by Motown with the incomparable Eric Gale providing some jagged guitar soloing. “Fat Mama” has a phat groove underpinned by a fuzz guitar and acoustic bass. “Oh! Oh! Here He Comes” is a mid-tempo funk number anchored nimbly by Williams electric bass that Hancock nimbly plays around on the electric piano. “Fat Albert Rotunda” is another groover highlighted by Henderson’s usual outstanding sax solo work.

Not every song was a headlong dive into contemporary music, however; “Jessica” returns to the acoustic, urbane gentleness of the prior two albums, and is a lovely tune that serves as a temporary respite from the beat oriented fare found almost everywhere else.

The standout track on this record is “Tell Me A Bedtime Story”; the most covered tune by far of Hancock’s from his “lost” era, and rightfully so. Led by Henderson’s flute and Coles’ gentle trumpet, it’s perhaps Herbie’s most melodic song ever. The theme is stated over and over again and the horn section give it a quietly majestic feel, not too unlike “Speak Like A Child.” It’s like none of the other tracks and yet it’s the centerpiece of the entire record.

Ultimately, Fat Albert Rotunda is a unique item in Herbie Hancock’s long and diverse catalog. The nod to R&B and funk is territory he would visit more in earnest four years later, but it comes in a entirely different flavor. Some of the tracks here don’t really offer much in the way of subtlety like anything during the Blue Note years did, but they’re also played too well to qualify for guilty pleasures. And where Hancock did pay more attention to composing, as in “Bedtime,” it was as good as he’s ever done. More importantly, Herbie is sounding like he’s enjoying himself more than at any time since his 1962 debut. And when Herbie is having fun, his listeners usually are, too.

Listen: Herbie Hancock “Wiggle-Waggle”

Listen: Herbie Hancock “Tell Me A Bedtime Story”

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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