Herbie Mann Reconsidered

Written by

Funny how sometimes a new experience makes you reconsider an artist you’d already made your mind up about a long time ago.

Herbie Mann—flutist, producer, soloist on great big band dates of Michel Legrand and others—was never my favorite flute player. As I flute player myself, I always preferred Hubert Laws, with his beautiful tone and creative improvisations. Laws just has an overall great sound, beginning with his early days with Mongo Santamaria to his early post-Juilliard Atlantic CD’s and later to his CTI albums (which won him a big audience due to the quality production, orchestrations, and fancy gatefold packaging with color cover photos by Pete Turner). Other flutists that I admire include the late Dave Valentin, Cuban flutists Maraca and José Fajardo, as well as James Moody. I must add James Spaulding here, too.

But Herbie Mann? I didn’t like many of his records, and the cover of his album Push Push, baring his hairy chest (at right) simply puzzled me. What was he thinking? Mann’s most famous record was Live at the Village Gate  from November 17, 1961. The cool Village Gate nightclub in Greenwich, New York, used to book top Latin and jazz groups, rock titans like Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, and Jacques Brel, to mention just a few. The artist roster was wildly eclectic and wonderful, to say the least. Mann’s Live at the Village Gate starts off with bassist Ben Tucker’s hit song “Comin’ Home Baby,” which features a 36-bar bass and percussion intro to set-up the groove before Mann even begins soloing. The album also includes long versions of Gershwin’s “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” There are only three cuts on the album, probably because, being a live club recording, the songs stretch out longer than they would on a studio date.

My original vinyl copy has seen better days, so I recently bought the CD version and listened again several times. To my surprise, I found the album a pleasure to listen to all the way through. What made Herbie Mann a great flute player was the way he felt rhythm as well as his rapport with the great musicians in his group. On Live at the Village Gate, the personnel includes bass players Ahmad Abdul-Malik and Ben Tucker, Hagood Hardy on vibes, and a percussion section featuring Chief Bey on African drum, Ray Mantilla on conga, and Rudy Collins on drums.

Whereas Hubert Laws plays with flawless technique and execution of brilliant ideas, Herbie Mann was more of a pied piper, riffing constantly against the bass lines of Malik and Tucker, and inserting constant little flute phrases into the group improvisations. The result is a jam session and a drum circle combined. Mann was the perfect flutist for a relaxed club performance. The music flows and grooves from beginning to end. The recorded sound quality is great for a live club date, and you can hear the audience talking, the bartender mixing drinks, and maybe almost smell the cigarette smoke wafting through the club’s interior.

So I was wrong about Herbie Mann. I don’t own a lot of his other albums, but this live 1961 recording is pleasurable to listen to all the way through. It has a great vibe, rhythm, and feel, and I recommend it whole-heartedly.

Listen to the album here:

Banner image at top: Herbie Mann with Will Lee by Tom Marcello Webster, New York, USA (CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)