Now Spinning: Herbie Mann – Memphis Underground

Funky Friday music with this classic from Herbie Mann and a frighteningly loaded cast of supporting musicians.

Few, if any, musicians can compete with the constant musical open-mindedness and curiosity of jazz flutist Herbie Mann. He would quite literally explore a different genre or set of influences with every single album – Impressions of the Middle East, Latin Mann, Reggae, and dozens and dozens more. As the Memphis Underground title suggests, this album is a tribute to the American Sound recording studio, Stax Records and that Memphis soul stew sound that created so much of our favorite music.

Before we get into the music, let’s just marvel at the level of talent performing on this one. Along with Mann and the legendary vibraphonist Roy Ayers, this band feature’s two of the era’s finest and most explosive experimental guitarists, Sonny Sharrock and Lary Coryell, supported by the gang of the usual stellar Memphis session suspects – Reggie Young, Bobby Wood, Bobby Emmons, Mike Leach, Tommy Cogbill and Gene Christman. With years of playing together supporting a variety of artists, the ‘Memphis Boys’ can play anything and have no trouble keeping up with these jazz players famous for pushing the envelope.

The album kicks off with the title track, Mann’s ode to Memphis, an instrumental clocking in at seven minutes, led by a steady rhythm and choppy, swampy organ groove that sets the tone for what’s to come. The album’s centerpiece is a cover of the ultimate Memphis song, ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’.’ Any concerns about the super hit being a derivative cover choice are immediately erased, as those jazz cats save up their best solos for this one, with Sharrock’s playing simply jaw-dropping, while the band maintains a breakneck rhythm. Aretha Franklin’s ‘Chain of Fools’ is a somewhat odd cover choice with no connections to Memphis that I’m aware of, but the slinking groove is too good of a musical fit to complain. Topping ten minutes in length, the four soloists are once again given plenty of space to play.

The album closes with what looks like a downright bizarre cover on paper, the traditional patriotic song, ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’. Unlike the rest of the album, the tempo remains slow and subdued, with Mann delicately leading the way through a familiar melody. As he continues, lyrics pop into my head, however, they aren’t words telling of the glories of battle, but rather lines like ‘Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong’ and ‘John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave/But his soul goes marching on’, as this patriotic melody was borrowed by Pete Seeger and others who used it to add extra power to some of the era’s most everlasting protest songs. By performing it as an instrumental, Mann manages to honor all versions of the song at once, in a style that will bring forth images of American history, warts and all, as you listen. Released four months before Jimi Hendrix’s historic rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, Mann’s version of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, while performed in an extremely different musical style, conveys a similar power of emotion, directly tying together patriotism and protest.

I’m very pleased with the sound of this album of vinyl, dead quiet in the groove with feel-it-in-your-bones bass and great tonal sharpness. And sure enough, looking at the Discogs entry, it was mastered by one of my favorite mastering engineers, George Piros. George’s work for Atlantic was always stellar, so I’m not surprised to see his involvement here and would highly recommend seeking out THIS VERSION. Perhaps because Herbie Mann was constantly in the studio producing a huge discography supported by Atlantic’s distribution strength, his albums can be found just about everywhere for extremely cheap prices. The $4 median price at the Discogs link above seems like an unfair steal so I highly recommend picking up a copy.

Turntable: Thorens TD 160
Cartridge/Stylus: Nagaoka MP-110
Receiver: Marantz 2230
Speakers: KLH Model 6

Classic Memphis R&B, Sam & Dave, King Curtis, Booker T & The MGs etc
Soul Music
Jazz with soul/R&B influences
Any of the musicians involved and their countless projects

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