Not long after yielding the piano chair in the Miles Davis Quintet to Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock began what is now known as his Mwandishi period, the beginning of a short but significant affiliation with Warner Bros. (He’d ended his Blue Note run on an adventurous note in 1969 with The Prisoner.) The rise of Black consciousness in the early 1970s led the eminent pianist to adopt a Swahili name, Mwandishi, which then became the de facto moniker of this influential sextet. The other members took new names as well, including trumpeter Eddie Henderson (Mganga); bass clarinet, flute, and piccolo master Bennie Maupin (Mwile); trombonist Julian Priester (Pepo Mtoto); bassist Buster Williams (Mchezaji); and drummer Billy Hart (Jabali). To dispense with formality: This was one of the coolest bands ever, with Mwandishi laying out a whole new exploratory vision for the Fender Rhodes electric piano. There’s no acoustic piano on the album, nor is there saxophone. But Maupin’s bass clarinet—so central to the sound of Miles Davis’ epochal Bitches Brew—is a constant force on Mwandishi, while his alto flute recalls the kind of wind textures Hancock explored on Speak Like a Child. (Maupin would stick around for Hancock’s next project, The Headhunters.) Priester’s trombone thickens the brass, as well as the band’s low end, while Williams and Hart brings an elasticity of groove that keeps these three long tunes elusively burning. In an intriguing twist, rock guitar hero Ronnie Montrose appears (almost imperceptibly) on the leadoff “Ostinato (Suite for Angela),” along with paired percussionists Leon “Ndugu” Chancler and José “Chepito” Areas. The piece is exactly that—an ostinato, or repeating bass pattern—in a driving 15-beat cycle that prompts a psychedelic whirlwind of group improvisation. The Mwandishi band burned brightly on one more for Warner Bros., Crossings, and carried over to Hancock’s debut album for Columbia, Sextant.

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