Herbie Mann – “Push Push” (1971)

I’ve seen this record pop up dozens of times on Facebook groups like Now Playing and On The Turntable Now. The first few times I assumed it was more as a “ha ha, look at this cover!” and it was only later that I came to find out a bit more about prolific and popular jazz flutist Herbie Mann.

But first, we do in fact need to talk about this cover.

The image is a simple one – a shirtless Mann shown from the waist up. At the time of Push Push‘s release Mann would have been 41 years old, and he more or less looks it – thinning hair and a body that isn’t ripped or toned, but not yet starting to sag. Putting yourself on the cover like that takes a healthy ego. I get it, it was the 70s and all, but it’s still a surprising image for an already extremely well-known artists, particularly, if we’re being completely honest here, a male artists. Society is generally fine with women showing a lot of skin on an album cover, but a middle-aged man? It’s not that people object per se, it’s just… it’s just not what’s done. Which in a way makes it that much more meaningful.

And then there’s the flute, resting easily over Mann’s shoulder, a purely masculine way of holding an instrument that has, for whatever reason, always been seen as feminine. In fact a 2018 review of the world’s 20 greatest orchestras, as ranked by Gramophone, revealed that 69% of the full-time orchestra members were men, though in the flute section males only comprised of around 42% of players (the results were shown in a chart and don’t provide precise numbers). Only three instruments had more female performers than male – harp (almost exclusively female), flute, and violin (almost 50/50 with women in a slight majority). If you think back to your school bands when you were growing up there were probably rarely if even any male flute players. But here’s Herbie Mann, not only shirtless with his flute, but holding it the same way a lumberjack would hold an axe or a construction worker a sledgehammer or shovel. Everything about this cover tries to convey an image of masculinity, other than the flute itself. There’s a similar image on the jacket reverse, and inside the gatefold is a picture of two torso that are obviously in the throes of passion. Push Push wants to be sexy.

I can’t tell you anything about Herbie Mann that you can’t just as easily find on Wikipedia or by typing his name into Google. To say he was prolific would be an understatement – he already had more than 40 albums under his belt by the time Push Push came out in 1971. Hell, he put out eight albums in 1957 alone, and another seven in 1962, which is insane. And everyone in the know regards him as one of the all-time greats on the flute.

As for Push Push itself, it’s a seriously funky album. The title track is a surprisingly beautiful journey. You’d think the flute would be a distraction, and it is for a few moments initially simply because it’s not normally a sound I expect to hear, but damn can Mann make it swing. It’s not about playing technically perfect flute, it’s about infusing it with emotion. You can hear Mann’s breath working its way through that silver metal tube, injecting an element of himself into the instrument. And when he really gets after it, like he does int he second half of “Spirit In the Dark”, you have to stop and take notice.

I probably would have never bought a copy of Push Push, but fortunately for me I was recently “gifted” three huge moving boxes of vinyl from a friend’s dad, and he was way into funk, soul, and those outposts of jazz that are more on the funky side. After hours of sorting and research I finally brought a batch of these in from the garage for a well-needed cleaning, and most of them look to be in good shape – this copy of Push Push sounds beautiful on my Rega setup. I’m looking forward to digging into to some other titles in the weeks and months to come, and I’m sure more than a few will make it onto the blog, so stay tuned.