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Bargain Bin Babylon: Herbie Mann: Memphis Two-Step

Bargain Bin Babylon: Herbie Mann: Memphis Two-Step

The patient listener will find a surprise if they hang on long enough.

Writing for The Chicago Daily Defender, A.S. “Doc” Young picked an unusual metaphor to start the 1971 baseball season. The sports scribe waxed on springtime, cooing that “the birds are singing and they sound almost as good as Herbie Mann playing ‘Memphis Two-Step.’” If that was ever a hip reference, it’s not anymore. Mann’s 1971 album Memphis Two-Step—a sequel to the 1969 smash Memphis Underground—is, like much of Mann’s work, a dollar-bin staple. Yet it features at least one guitar solo that’s easily worth the price.

Romanian-Jewish flautist Herbie Mann began his career as a sideman backing up such jazz vocal legends as Chet Baker and Carmen McRae. His early records as a leader helped popularize Afro-Cuban jazz and bossa nova. But by the late ‘60s, Mann operated in a milieu he cheekily called “Afro-Yiddish.” His run of ‘70s albums featured what were, for the most part, benign jazz-like covers of pop hits. These records got terrible reviews. Critic Leonard Feather wrote of Mann in 1970, when the flautist had no fewer than five albums in the Top 20 jazz charts, that “he has achieved corporate dimensions that may yet see him listed on the NY Stock Exchange.”

Alas, yesterday’s best-sellers are today’s cultural detritus. Any crate digger separating the wheat from the chaff of musty thrift-store shelves has seen them. The most notorious, Push Push, gets a reliable visceral reaction from anyone who sees it, its cover photo exposing Mann’s sweaty bare chest as he holds his flute over his shoulder like a hobo carrying a bindle, daring you to pick him up by the side of the road. Even if a shirtless Mann floats your boat, why would you pick up one of these albums, even at a bargain-basement price? Because Mann knew how to put a band together.

Gems emerge from schlock much as gold chain links might glitter from Mann’s hirsuteness, and that’s thanks to his knack for hiring sidemen with more imagination than their leader. None other than Duane Allman was a guest soloist on Push Push, and most notably, several of Mann’s recordings on the Atlantic and Embryo labels (the latter his own imprint, as if promising that his shirtless seduction would bear human fruit) featured all-time shredder Sonny Sharrock.

The one-time Miles Davis sideman would spend much of a Mann album restraining his guitar genius until the leader gave him room to play. And play he did—listen to Sharrock go gonzo on the Sam & Dave staple “Hold On, I’m Comin’” on Memphis Underground, bursting forth as if taking the lyrics’ not exactly subtle sexual undercurrent and running with it like a hungry electric satyr.

It takes a full album for Sharrock to show his cards on Memphis Two-Step, which like a typical Mann album of the era, mostly consists of uninspired version of pop hits. Tapping the Sam & Dave catalog yet again, “Soul Man” opens the album, pleasant but uninspired and without the benefit of a Sharrock skronk-out. Even less promising is a cover of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a sleepy dirge that runs even further from the psychedelic promise of the cover’s garish colors (which disguise Mann’s chest hair in pop-art halos). The Don Sebesky-composed title cut, which left such an impression on The Chicago Daily Defender’s sports staff, swings a bit more but never catches fire, though it comes close with Roy Ayers’ vibraphone solo.

It’s on closer “Kabuki Rock” that the album finally takes off. William S. Fischer’s melody isn’t done any favors by the straight-ahead rock beat, but when drummer Bruno Carr starts to break out of the constraints with angrier fills, Mann sounds more driven—as driven as you can get with a flute—and then Sharrock finally lets loose. You can hear him slowly turn up in the mix, his guitar not fully distorted, but he sounds like he’s untuning and retuning as he plays, creating a spaced-out, trebly psychedelic timbre in gleeful ignorance of the accelerating beat, playing against it for a rare occurrence on the album: Tension! As his bandmates speed up, Sharrock picks in between the spaces, generating a maximum of steam on a minimum of power. Sadly, the track fades out at 5:30, just as Sharrock is just getting started.

Mann’s embrace of rock and pop meant that most jazzbos considered him a sell-out. But that sell-out, however many records he sold, came from a crossover impulse that inspired and encouraged adventurous sidemen. It was Mann who released, on his Vortex label, Sharrock’s 1969 solo debut Black Woman. Memphis Two-Step is not anywhere near as wild and unexpected as that album, but the patient listener will find a surprise if they hang on long enough.

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