DATE September 9, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Bob Woodard on his new book, "The War Within," about
the differing behind-the-scenes opinions on the Iraq surge
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The surge in Iraq is one of the issues that divided the presidential
candidates. When it was proposed, John McCain supported the increase of
troops; Barack Obama opposed it. The surge also divided the Bush
administration and the military, and that's the focus of Bob Woodward's new
book, "The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008."
It's the fourth of his books investigating what went on behind the scenes in
the Bush administration. In the epilogue, Woodward writes that President Bush
has seldom leveled with the public about the war to explain what he was doing
and what should be expected. In 2006, when the administration was debating
the proposed surge, the administration worried too much about how the story of
internal debate would play in the midterm elections and not enough about the
war itself. Woodward adds, "The next president should learn to trust the
public with the truth."
Bob Woodward, welcome back to FRESH AIR. The surge has become such a big
issue in the campaign, so let's start there. Saturday night in Albuquerque,
John McCain said, "We have succeeded and we are winning in Iraq." And I wonder
if all the sources, you know, if all the sources you've talked to for your new
book "The War Within," have people talked about winning in Iraq? Do they see
us as winning now?
Mr. BOB WOODWARD: Not exactly. And if you think about this in the five-year
perspective, going back to the invasion, we have as many troops there right
now as we had five years ago. And the war is not over. As we know, Iraq
always deals a surprise. No weapons of mass destruction, as all the
intelligence people thought. The rise of the insurgency. The rise of a
homegrown al-Qaeda in Iraq. The sectarian violence, which was just totally
off the charts in 2006. And a lot of people are worried about what's the
fifth surprise. So things are going well, things are going better. The
situation is much more stable, less violent. But General Petraeus is
insisting on keeping all of those troops there because he knows how tenuous
the situation there, as it always is in Mesopotamia.
GROSS: You write in your book that President Bush never defined what winning
is, and that was a source of frustration to a lot of people working with him.
Mr. WOODWARD: That's right. And he, when I interviewed him for this book,
he a couple of times talked about "win," and then he immediately corrected
himself to say "we'll succeed." And this is not a conventional war where you
stomp out the enemy and there is a signing ceremony on the Battleship
Missouri. This is an attempt to create the conditions where Iraq can govern
itself, and as General Petraeus says, you can't kill your way to victory, and
I think that's exactly right. So you have to do something less than win, and
it's kind of succeed. And at the end, President Bush said very clearly when I
asked, `What are you--when the next president comes in the Oval Office on
January 20th, 2009, what are you going to say?' And he finally said, `I'm
going to say, "Don't let it fail."' Which is a much more diminished
expectation than all of this hyperbolic rhetoric that we've heard for so many
GROSS: You write that the surge is one of four things that has contributed to
the progress that's been made in Iraq. What are the other three?
Mr. WOODWARD: First, the Anbar awakening, where the Sunnis came over. This
was before the surge had started, were disgusted with al-Qaeda and the extreme
efforts by al-Qaeda to impose very strict law. Al-Qaeda made a strategic
mistake, and so the Sunnis said, `This is too extreme. We're going to sign up
with the US,' and tens of thousands of them have. The second is radical Shia
leader Muqtada Sadr's standdown in 2006, where he told his militia not to
attack US troops. The surge is the third element.
But the fourth, of course, is very top secret, and that is a series of
operations that have been developed that allow the US forces to locate, target
and kill extremists, al-Qaeda members and members of the insurgency. On
Friday the White House, in responding to the book for the first time publicly,
confirmed that there were, quote, "newly developed techniques and operations"
which helped the situation stabilize in Iraq.
GROSS: At the request of the military and the White House you're not
revealing any of the details you found out about what these top secret
operations are. What can you tell us?
Mr. WOODWARD: It's like any war. There is always something. There's a game
changer, a new development. Early 20th century it was the tank or the
airplane. World War II, the Manhattan Project and the development of the
atomic bomb. These operations and techniques are not something where you're
going to see an explosion like an atomic bomb, but they are incredibly
effective. They are something that, as President Bush said to people that I
quote in the book, `We are killing them all. We are killing all of the people
who are the leaders.' Now, it's not literally all, but they are killing
hundreds and hundreds of key people on the other side in this conflict.
GROSS: You know, in the presidential campaign, John McCain has been saying
that it's just really about the surge. The surge is behind the progress we've
been making. He was for it, and Obama opposed it. Do you think that that's a
fair analysis of what has actually happened that contributed to any progress
that's been made in Iraq?
Mr. WOODWARD: The surge is part of it, there's no question about it. And I
say so. At the same time, there are these other elements, and whether one is
20 percent or 30 percent or 50 percent, they--anyone who knows the facts would
agree that you have these at least four factors. To reduce it to `it's about
the surge' is way too simplistic and not the full story, and of course as we
see in all political campaigns, things get reduced to a sentence or even
sometimes a word, and the concept of multiple causes gets lost.
GROSS: One of the things you report on in your book is that the United States
intelligence agencies have been spying on the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri
al-Maliki. Why have we been doing that?
Mr. WOODWARD: Because the situation has been unstable. There was a lot of
doubt about Maliki, very sectarian Shia leader, was doing things that were
highly sectarian in the early part of his time as prime minister. And it
becomes an obsession. `Oh, let's find out what we can about the other side,'
and so they sit and they say, `Oh, we know every little utterance and proposed
action and idea of the Iraqi prime minister, that somehow spying will tell us
what to do.' That mindset of, `Let's spy our way to success. Let's spy our
way to victory,' there's just too much of it.
GROSS: My guest is Bob Woodward. His new book is called "The War Within: A
Secret White House History, 2006-2008."
Your book is really focused on dissension within the White House and the
military over what to do in Iraq, but it's also a little bit about deception.
I mean, you write that President Bush knew that the war was going badly while
at the same time he was telling the American public it was going well, we were
winning. How long do you think there was that disconnect between what he knew
and what he was telling the American public?
Mr. WOODWARD: Months. And in a sense what this book is, it's a portrait
of--it's a case study of a commander in chief at war, three and a half years
into a war that he started, and it's not going well. He knows it's not going
well. His advisers are telling him. The intelligence agencies are telling
him. It's getting worse and more violent. And he wonders, well, what do you
do? And as he told me at one point, he has this kind of expression, `Let's
cut to the chase,' Hadley drove a lot of this. Hadley being Steve Hadley, the
national security adviser to the president, and you look at the detail and the
evolution in this narrative of what's going on in the White House in the
secret meetings, in the secret documents, you see that Hadley was driving a
lot of this. At key moments the president was not there at the meetings where
they are confronting the reality that they have a strategy that is not
GROSS: So basically you're saying President Bush outsourced the commander in
chief role in part to his national security adviser?
Mr. WOODWARD: "Outsourced" would be too strong a word. Hadley wasn't making
the decisions. The president still made the decisions. But, for instance, in
July 2006, Hadley and one of his deputies developed a series of questions to
ask the Iraq commander, General Casey at this time, and Don Rumsfeld, then
secretary of defense, and they asked a series--it actually turns out to be 50
questions--about, `What are we doing? What's the strategy? What's going on
here?' The president is not at that meeting. It would be like in a business,
the business is losing money or about to go under, and the board of directors
meet and the CEO's not there. These are critical CEO questions and they, in
this case, are turned over to Hadley.
GROSS: My guest is Bob Woodward, and he's just written his fourth book
chronicling what went on behind the scenes in the Bush administration. This
one's called "The War Within," and it's in part about the war over what to do
in Iraq, and it covers 2006 to 2008. Let's take a short break here, and then
we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bob Woodward. He's just
finished his fourth book about what happened behind the scenes in the Bush
White House. This one's called "The War Within," and it's largely about the
war within the Bush administration about what to do in Iraq.
Now, Steven Hadley, the national security adviser, and his deputy, Megan
O'Sullivan, started a secret review of Iraq strategy, and this was in 2006.
It was about three months before the congressional midterm elections, and the
elections had to do with why this review was kept secret. Can you explain the
connection between the secrecy and the election?
Mr. WOODWARD: The elections were coming up. Iraq--this was two years
ago--was going to be a key issue, and the Republicans held very slim
majorities in the House and the Senate, and they said openly to each other,
`We have to do this under the radar because of the hot political season.' The
president is campaigning, saying the war is going well, or progress is being
made. He did acknowledge that a lot of it was hard, but he emphatically said
a couple of weeks before the election, "We are winning, we are winning" when
he knew we were not, when he knew he had authorized this secret strategy
It's interesting, the strategy review was led by Hadley and his deputy, Megan
O'Sullivan. There was one person from the State Department, but no one from
the military. So here they're meeting, and it's David Satterfield who is the
representative from the State Department, Condi Rice is Iraq coordinator, who
says, `Here we are talking about military strategy, about what we should do
and whether we need more troops or whether we need to get out, and no one here
knows the details of this. There's no representative from the Joint Chiefs.
There's no representative from the civilian side of the Defense Department.'
As soon as the election is over and Rumsfeld is removed, then they conduct a
second strategy review that does clearly include the military and the
GROSS: Why wasn't the military included, or why wasn't the intelligence
agencies included the first time around?
Mr. WOODWARD: Because then it might get out...
Mr. WOODWARD: ...that they were questioning...
GROSS: So it was part of the secrecy.
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes.
GROSS: Are there examples where you feel that politics was driving policy in
Mr. WOODWARD: I think that's the case. I don't think it was the politics,
and as I say in the book, I never really, in all of this work and this book
and the earlier ones, questioned Bush's sincerity. He wanted to win, he
wanted to do it. He believes that it is the right thing. The problem is,
what should be your expectations of a commander in chief, truly a sacred
constitutional duty? The Constitution says the president is the commander in
chief. He's at war. He is sending over 100,000 US troops over there for
years. The level of engagement you would expect would be total and absolute.
And too much of this goes along--and I asked the president, I said, `Did you
give Hadley a deadline?' And he said, `I don't think I did. This is nothing
you hurry.' And my question is, how can you not hurry when you have a failing
strategy in a war that's been going on for three and a half years?
GROSS: There are so many conflicting ideas between 2006 and 2007 about where
the United States should be heading in Iraq. Conflicting between, you know,
the State Department, the Defense Department, the military, the National
Security Council. You write that Rumsfeld, as he was advocating a plan to
accelerate departure from Iraq, you know, the National Security Council team,
their plan is advocating investing more troops in Iraq, the surge. So can you
talk a little bit about that conflict between what Rumsfeld wanted and what
the National--like, secret National Security Council team was putting
Mr. WOODWARD: What Rumsfeld wanted to do--and he expressed it in these terms
repeatedly, and he did in some interviews I did for "State of Denial" in July
of 2006--he said, `We have to get our hand off the back of the Iraqi bicycle
seat. We have to let them go solo and do this on their own.' And so the whole
plan, the whole concept was: train the Iraqis, try to stabilize and mature
the government, and then we start withdrawing. We have to turn it over to
them. He felt very strongly that was the right strategy, as did General
Casey. The problem is, this is not working. And it's not as if it's just a
little malfunction. It is that the attack levels reached the point where
there were six to eight attacks in Iraq an hour. Now, that is a level of
violence which we can't imagine in this country. And the president told me,
he said, you know, 50 bodies showing up here, 25 people having their throats
slit. It was a calamity, and the process of acknowledging the calamity and
developing an alternative took so long while the war was going on and while
people were dying, Iraqis and Americans.
GROSS: So as Rumsfeld was suggesting what we have to do is turn things over
to the Iraqis, train them, let them handle it, Condoleeza Rice, you say, you
know, in the State Department, is thinking this is Rumsfeld's way of trying to
shift the blame and shift the problems onto the State Department instead of
his Defense Department?
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes, and the State Department position, Rice's two key
deputies on this developed a secret paper saying, `We need to stand back.
There's been too much emphasis on Iraq.' And it's kind of a vague notion, but
it coincided somewhat with the idea of: we need to make less of an investment
in Iraq. And Secretary of State Rice opposed the surge for a long time. She
kept telling the president. I recount in this meetings where she said, `Well,
tell me what they're going to do that's different.' And quite frankly, they
had no answer to her question, even at the time they announced the surge. It
was General Petraeus who came up with the theory and the idea we're going to
use these extra troops to protect the Iraqi population, give them enhanced and
necessary security. But Rice pressed and pressed, and there are scenes in the
book where you see her not stopping, and finally the president said, `Your
option is an option for failure.' And she came right back at him and said,
`Well, suppose we surge for failure. How do we know this is going to work?'
She eventually became convinced that, after some meetings with the foreign
ministers in the region of countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and so forth,
that these foreign ministers in governments felt we were heading out. We were
going to abandon them in the Middle East, and she felt that it was necessary
to make a recommitment, and so she finally supported the surge.
GROSS: Bob Woodward will be back in the second half of the show. His new
book about the Bush administration is called "The War Within." I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Bob Woodward. His new
book, "The War Within," is about the divisions within the Bush administration
and the military over the surge of troops in Iraq. The book covers the years
2006 to 2008. Woodward writes that President Bush turned over a lot of his
war-related responsibilities to his national security adviser, Steven Hadley.
When Hadley was trying to enlist people to publicly support the surge, one of
the first people he approached was John McCain. I asked Woodward, why Senator
Mr. WOODWARD: McCain, going back to 2003, as you may recall, publicly was
advocating more troops. He said there were not enough troops, and it is one
of the things McCain was hammering on. For years he made regular trips to
Iraq, talked to the military leaders in Iraq, and reached this conclusion.
And Hadley, in talking with McCain, essentially said, `John, look, if you
don't go along with the surge, an addition of five brigades, 30,000 more
troops, no one will.' And finally McCain signed on. Couple of points it
looked like McCain was going to insist that they send more additional troops.
GROSS: You say that McCain didn't mention his private fear that the US was on
the brink of losing the war.
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes. He met privately in May 2007 with Condi Rice, and he'd
just visited Iraq--and this is before the secret operations or the surge
really got going--and he said to her, very direct terms, `We are about to lose
the second war in my lifetime.' The first, of course, being Vietnam, when he
had served and when he was a prisoner. And he was quite upset that the State
Department was not making a significant enough contribution to the war,
civilian, these provincial reconstruction teams that work in Iraq. And then
when they talked in public, he of course said none of this.
May 2007 was a real low point in all of this. The surge forces were getting
there. The secret operations were just getting under way. Violence was
getting worse. There was no sense of stability. And I recount these meetings
that Hadley and the White House had with Iraqi officials, including his
counterpoint, the national security adviser to Maliki, and Hadley and his
deputy were saying, `We just, we need some drama. We need something
dramatic.' They realized that it was probably one of the grimmest times in the
war. And of course, four months later, when the secret operations got going,
the surge got going, more people signed up in the Anbar awakening, and Muqtada
asked his militia--or ordered them not to go after American soldiers, there
was this sudden drop in violence. If you look at the charts, it's just like a
ski slope down.
GROSS: Now, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, didn't like the idea
of the surge. How did the US get Maliki to agree to it?
Mr. WOODWARD: The president met with Maliki in private and said, `I'm
prepared to commit tens of thousands of more troops'--this is before the
president really had talked to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top military
people about this--and then he kept talking to Maliki and saying that, you
know, `We have--you'--in very stark terms, he told the prime minister, `You
are losing control of your country. You have lost control of Baghdad.' And
laid this out as an option, and finally Maliki went along.
GROSS: After President Bush decided the strategy in Iraq was failing, he
decided to ask for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation, but the resignation wasn't
announced until the day after Election Day in 2006. Can you tell us why that
was the timing of the announcement of Rumsfeld's resignation?
Mr. WOODWARD: The decision was, don't do it before. Of course, a lot of
Republicans who were quite critical of Rumsfeld felt it should have been done
before, and if it was Republicans would have retained control of the House and
Senate. That's "if history." What is clear is that President Bush did not
consult Dick Cheney, the vice president, about this. Now, Cheney was
Rumsfeld's patron. It was Cheney's idea that they make Rumsfeld secretary of
defense, and a couple of days before the announcement that Rumsfeld was being
replaced, the president called Cheney in after a meeting alone and said, `I've
decided to replace Rumsfeld.' Cheney was surprised and said, `With whom?' And
the president said Bob Gates, who had been CIA director in his father's
presidency for a while, and Cheney directly said, `Well, I disagree, but
obviously it's your call.' So this was something in this intrigue in the White
House and the Bush administration, the process of deciding on who to replace
Rumsfeld with; and to replace Rumsfeld, which was a giant decision, Cheney was
not involved in.
GROSS: After David Petraeus was appointed to command the troops in Iraq and
the surge policy was put into effect and the counterinsurgency policy that
Petraeus oversaw, you say there was a big food fight between Petraeus and
Admiral Fallon, who was the head of CENTCOM at the time, the Central Command,
which oversees that region of the world. What was the fight about?
Mr. WOODWARD: Fascinating story. Admiral Fallon believed that there were
actually too many troops in Iraq, and when Petraeus would ask for small
numbers or large numbers--there's lots of flexibility. The commander on the
ground can ask, `I need 10 more people here' or `I need another half of a
battalion for some special operation. He felt that there was too much of
this, and that they were not controlling the use of personnel, and so they had
some real disagreements which I outlined in the book. And this led to finally
not quite 10 months after Petraeus took over and Gates is in as secretary of
defense where there was such a feeling that maybe Petraeus is not getting the
support he needs, that President Bush sends a back channel message to
Petraeus, saying, `You will get what you need. If there's any way to give it
to you, we will.'
I asked President Bush about this, why, you know, through these back channels.
Hadley, the national security adviser didn't know the president was doing
this. Secretary of Defense Gates didn't know he was doing it. The president
said, `I wanted to make sure that Dave'--meaning General Petraeus--`knew that
I, the president, as commander in chief, supported him totally.' And so
Admiral Fallon was kind of sidelined on this. He called it a jumper cable
between Washington and Petraeus, and he knew--even though he was in the chain
of command and Petraeus' superior, that this jumper cable was in place and
really the important channel of communication.
GROSS: General Petraeus is about to assume command of CENTCOM, the position
that Admiral Fallon has been holding, and some people see this as a way of
continuing the strategy in Iraq, even after President Bush leaves office, but
I think other people think that when General Petraeus heads CENTCOM and his
responsibilities are broader than just Iraq, that he might have a different
point of view about how much in terms of American resources we should be
putting in Iraq and how much we should be devoting to, say, Afghanistan or
Pakistan. And I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.
Mr. WOODWARD: Well, we'll see. It's a good question because Petraeus will
then be in the chain of command, as you say, overseeing both the Iraq war and
the Afghanistan war, and things are better in Iraq. Things are not better in
Afghanistan. So he may shift his point of view. Petraeus is somebody who's
succeeded up to this point. As I've said, he's been very cautious about
looking at all of this. This is a war in Iraq that is not over. He would not
be keeping 140,000 troops there--this is a massive land army that we have in
Iraq--unless he felt that there was something fragile, something that could
occur that could be a significant setback. So we're in a strange position.
He's in a position where it's all going to be on his head in many ways, both
Iraq and Afghanistan. But he is sufficiently popular and credible with the
public and the Congress and the current administration, and certainly John
McCain is--when McCain was asked in one of these interviews, `Who do you
consult, who are the three most important people you consult?', the first that
McCain mentioned was General Petraeus. So he's in a powerful position, in a
very unusual one.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bob Woodward. We're talking
about his new book "The War Within, " which is largely about the conflict
within the Bush administration and the military over what to do in Iraq.
Let's talk a short break here and then we'll talk so more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Bob Woodward. We're talking about his new book "The War
Within," and it covers what went on behind the scenes in the White House from
2006 to 2008 in terms of the strategy in Iraq. And it's about the conflicts
over Iraq within the White House and the military.
You've been interviewing President Bush for your books for years now. Your
first book was about the Bush White House after September 11th--I mean, your
first book about the Bush administration. How has President Bush's tone
changed in your interviews with him over the years?
Mr. WOODWARD: In the early interviews and the speeches after 9/11, there was
this resolution--`We are determined. We will not give up'--a certainty. He
has retained that certainty about the Iraq war in many ways, but you see it's
worn him down. That he is not--the goals he set for himself, which he told me
about in 2001, `We're going to end terrorism. We're going to unify the
country,' those things plainly have not happened. And it's not surprising
that it has taken a toll. It has taken a toll. And there is a kind
of--whenever he mentions winning, he immediately corrects himself to say
succeeding, that the high expectations that we were going to export a kind of
Western democracy to the Middle East, the bar has been lowered on that
At the same time, things are better in Iraq now than they have been in years
and there's grounds for some optimism, but anyone who knows that area of the
world and has dealt with the surprises and the nature of the country and the
deep, embedded hostility between the Shia and the Sunnis knows that anything
can happen almost at any time.
GROSS: You asked President Bush about how the military decided to go along
with the troop surge after being reluctant to do it, and President Bush said,
`OK, I don't know this. I'm not in those meetings, you'll be happy to hear,
because I got other things to do.' Were you surprised to hear him say that?
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes, I was, and there is a kind of ambivalence that he
reflects that I found more than surprising. He says he's working on this all
of the time, and then he makes it very clear, like on the issue of how many
brigades to send in the surge, whether it's going to be two or five is a big
deal. And Hadley says, well, the discussion and the kind of landing on five
brigades comes out of Hadley's discussions with General Pace, who was then
chairman of the Join Chiefs. And president's listening to this as I'm
interviewing him in the Oval Office, and he says, `Well, I don't know that.
I'm not in those meetings, you'll be glad to hear.' As I say in the book,
there were points where Hadley was acting as kind of de facto secretary of
defense and, as the president says, Hadley was driving lots of this. For the
president to not be in that meeting is very surprising.
GROSS: You've been immersed in the secret history of the Bush administration
for years now. What are some of the things that you're finding frustrating
listening to the presidential campaigns and how they're addressing the war?
Mr. WOODWARD: Well, in a sense they aren't addressing it that much because
it's complex, but it--there has to be an acknowledgement of the immense
responsibility that is coming down on the next commander in chief, and that
it's something I hope, and there's been a tradition of this, that they will
both given intelligence briefings and updates by the Bush administration, so
when one of them becomes president they will have at least some knowledge
But it doesn't--it's not--the next stage of this war is not going to be
resolved by party doctrine, either Republican or Democrat. It's not going to
be resolved with slogans or simple ideas. It is going to be resolved by
somebody being the CEO, the commander in chief, who takes charge and figures
out where we go and how this gets resolved. And no one can see the future.
So much of the news is good, but the people who know the most have the most
hesitancy about defining that next stage, so it's going to be on the next
president's head, and it is a giant, big deal. And it's not something that
can be put off. It's going to be on the desk immediately when the new
commander in chief takes office.
GROSS: I think there's a sense in the country now that, you know, President
Bush is largely an unpopular president now, and in some ways it's like the
conversation has moved on. It's about, you know, Obama and McCain now and
who's going to win, and I think, you know, a lot of people like aren't
thinking that much about President Bush. They're thinking about the
presidential campaign. You have found so many problems within the Bush
administration, and a fair amount of deception in terms of what he knew and
what he told the American public, and I guess I'm wondering if you think
there's a level of accountability that we have to reckon with. Like, how do
you hold a president accountable for not only policy that has gone wrong, but
for having deceived the American public about how the war was going?
Mr. WOODWARD: All of this is done in the tradition of, I guess, would be
called accountability reporting. You try to find out as much as you can and
you tell people what really happened, what was said, what this document was,
what that intelligence report was. And the accountability comes in elections.
For a president who is leaving office, the accountability comes in history.
GROSS: Well, Bob Woodward, thank you so much for talking with us. Really
Mr. WOODWARD: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Bob Woodward's new book is called "The War Within: A Secret White
House History, 2006-2008."
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new re-issue of a 1971
session led by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Kevin Whitehead on the new re-issue of Bobby Hutcherson's
album "Head On"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Jazz vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson recorded steadily for the Blue Note label
between 1963 and 1977. Like other artists favored by that supportive label,
he got to record in varied settings--with or without horns, with background
singers or strings. A 1971 Hutcherson session orchestrated with reeds and
flutes and multiple percussion has just been re-issued. Jazz critic Kevin
Whitehead says it's just crazy enough to work.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Bobby Hutcherson's vibes sound like they're wandering
in a fog there, a metaphor for the predicament established jazz musicians
faced in the early '70s. They were unsure of which way led to daylight. With
mainstream jazz dipping in popularity, should they stick with what they know,
move toward the avant garde, get funky or do something classy with an
orchestra? For Bobby Hutcherson, the answer was `all of the above.'
(Soundbite of "Togo Land")
Mr. WHITEHEAD: That's "Togo Land" from Bobby Hutcherson's "Head On,"
recorded for Blue Note in 1971, and just re-issued with plenty of extra
material from the same sessions. It's a portrait of jazz in transition,
masterminded by classical R&B, pop and jazz composer Todd Cochrane, who wrote
most of it and put his stamp on all of it. His elaborate orchestrations
upstage the star only a little.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Todd Cochrane's writing for woodwinds can be lush, but
headliner Bobby Hutcherson cuts through, especially when he switches from
vibes to hardwood marimba. Years earlier he'd been an avant garde hero for
his heroically clanky vibes on Eric Dolphy's "Out to Lunch." Here he comes on
like the John Coltrane of the marimba, playing whatever he can squeeze in.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: A smart orchestrator like Todd Cochrane knows to get a band
out of a soloist's way. Other key players are tenor saxophonist Harold Land,
who charges straight down the middle when he gets the green light, and
electric pianist William Henderson, whose shiny, percussive sound reinforces
Hutcherson's mallet work. These big-ish bands have a heavy bottom, featuring
three or four drummers and percussionists, not even counting percussive pianos
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Some music is beautiful because it's conceptually
clear--boogie-woogie or the Sex Pistols; you can hear what it's about right
away. But Bobby Hutcherson's album "Head On" wants to be commercial and a
little out there at the same time. That mix of funk and free jazz owes a lot
to Miles Davis, but the sweet orchestrations give it a different flavor. In
the early '70s, other jazz musicians made records desperately mixing together
anything they thought might sell. Most of that stuff leaves me cold. But
this bowl of porridge is just right.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is currently on leave from teaching English and
American Studies at the University of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for
emusic.com. He reviewed "Head On," the 1971 session recorded by jazz
vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, which has just been re-issued on the Blue Note
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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