By Rémi Bonnet
Remember Fat Albert? This animated series, a typical relic of seventies entertainment, conquered the world thanks to the genius and wit of the one and only Bill Cosby, but its humble beginnings are buried by time and dust. It started, inauspiciously, with a one-shot, low-budget prime-time called Hey Hey It’s Fat Albert. And if you remember it, then you’re probably an aging American, because it has not been shown on TV since its original airing on NBC, in late 1969, and is currently unavailable on DVD.
But this long-forgotten feature left us a considerable legacy: the music. Its soundtrack was written and produced by one of the greatest jazzmen of the 20th century, Herbie Hancock who was, at that time, standing at a crossroad. He had spent the previous decade redefining the very essence of jazz, pushing its boundaries further and further on his Blue Note recordings. But in 1969, he wanted something else. And incredibly, it’s Fat Albert who gave him this opportunity.
On his Fat Albert Rotunda album, now reissued by Rhino Records in a beautiful boxset simply called The Warner Bros Years, the pianist wants to sound as funky as the principal character, And succeeds way beyond our wildest dreams. The discerning listener of 2014 may find this music interesting but not particulary groundbreaking. However in 1969, it was practically unheard of. Imagine an unlikely mix between James Brown and the Frank Zappa of Hot Rats and Uncle Meat, and you’re close to it.
From the unbelievably infectious ‘Wiggle-Waggle’ to the street-smart ‘Lil’ Brother’, Fat Albert Rotunda is a cornucopia of fluid guitar lines, New-Orleans inspired syncopated rhythms, ass-shaking tambourines, gutbucket saxophones, and, on top of it, Hancock’s electric piano who seems to ride the whole thing with the swagger of Huggy Bear on a sunny day. And, oh, in case you did not notice, he even thought about the grumpy jazz traditionalist, still clutching to his old Count Basie records with the gorgeous ‘Jessica’, who deserves to be praised in the most hallowed place.
Incredibly, the general public did not really care about this masterpiece, Herbie Hancock had to wait until 1973, and the huge success of Head Hunter, to find the winning formula, That is, of course, another story…
Fat Albert Rotunda is out now from Rhino Records