During the early (19)70’s funk and jazz were slowly brought together. Miles Davis was the first to experiment. Herbie Hancock was present during those first symbioses. He wanted to do something likewise for himself as well. Thus the birth of Head Hunters.
Midway through August of this year my first article on Herbie Hancock was published. It was about the 1983 album Future Shock. In that article Herbie Hancock’s career leading up to that album is glanced over, so that won’t be part of this article again.
Between 1971 and 1973 Hancock released three highly experimental albums: Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant. According to the liner-notes that accompanied the 1997 re-release of Head Hunters, Hancock grew tired of the music’s heaviness:
“I began to feel that I had been spending so much time exploring the upper atmosphere of music and the more ethereal kind of far-out spacey stuff. Now there was this need to take some more of the earth and to feel a little more tethered; a connection to the earth….I was beginning to feel that we (the sextet) were playing this heavy kind of music, and I was tired of everything being heavy. I wanted to play something lighter.”
Herbie Hancock’s twelfth studio album, Head Hunters, was released on October 13th, 1973. It was one of the most important releases of Hancock’s career, as well as within the history of jazz.
Hancock assembled new people around him and created a new band called Headhunters. Hancock played all synthesizers and keyboards himself and decided to exclude guitar (even though it was added at a later stage). The rhythm section was heavily rooted in the rhythm and blues tradition. A great idea, because the laid-back, funky beats made for a worldwide attraction. Combined with the merging of jazz and funk, it made the album to become a recognizable benchmark within the history of jazz: listeners of various genres were invited to explore other types of music.
Of all the songs, only Watermelon Man wasn’t written specifically for this album, since it’s a re-recording of the same song that was originally released on Hancock’s 1962 debut album Takin’ Off. The song Sly is a tribute to funk legend Sly Stone, Sly & The Family Stone’s band leader.
One single was culled from the album: Chameleon with B-side Vein Melter. Both songs were shortened up to 80% for the single release.
The album was a big smash. It immediately became the best-selling jazz album of all time. It held that title until George Benson released Breezin’ in 1976.
The main image on the album cover, which was designed by Victor Moscoso, is based on an African kple kple mask, that hails from the Baoulé tribes in Ivory Coast.
Despite the impressive sales figures, the album was frowned upon (to put it mildly) within jazz circles. This was too simple, no real jazz and unworthy of Hancock. Besides, a lot of the instruments were electric, which was suspect by default. Hadn’t Hancock learned anything of the way Miles Davis’ On The Corner was received? Didn’t he take into consideration that it was the most hated album in jazz for a very long time?
Luckily, the answer was no. Nowadays Head Hunters is widely considered to be one the most influential jazz albums of all time, which helped introduce jazz-fusion to a larger audience (in the meantime On The Corner is widely considered to be a classic).
The almost 16 minute long Chameleon in particular is an all time classic, that blends funk and jazz and brings out the best in both of them. The groove is irresistible, still offering ample room for improvisation.
The album was added to the American National Recording Registry, whose task consists of safe keeping “culturally, historically or aesthetically important” soundrecordings of the 20th century.
All songs written by Herbie Hancock, unless stated otherwise.
- Chameleon (Herbie Hancock, Paul Jackson, Harvey Mason, Bennie Maupin)
- Watermelon Man
- Vein Melter
- Herbie Hancock – Fender Rhodes, clavinet, ARP Odyssey synthesizer, ARP Soloist
- Bennie Maupin – (alto and soprano) saxophone, saxello, bass clarinet, bass flute
- Paul Jackson – bass, guitar, marimbula
- Harvey Mason – drums
- Bill Summers – agogô, balafon, beer bottle, cabasa, conga’s, gankogui, hindewhu, log drums, shekere, surdo, tamborine
The Headhunters – the band
The next Herbie Hancock album, Thrust, was recorded (largely) using the same musicians that were responsible for the Head Hunters album.
In 1975 the bandmembers decided to release an album under the moniker The Headhunters, Survival Of The Fittest, the official Headhunters debut album. Straight From The Gate followed in 1977. Early 1980’s the band quit.
The band reconvened in 1998 for the album Return Of The Headhunters!, on which Herbie Hancock contributed to 4 (out of 10 in total) songs. Ever since, The Headhunters played a lot of live shows, of which 2008’s On Top: Live In Europe is a fairly true account. Since then, two more studio albums have been released: 2003’s Evolution Revolution and 2010’s Platinum.
Musically speaking, The Headhunters remained true to Herbie Hancock’s original idea.
Do you know Head Hunters by Herbie Hancock? What do you think? Let me know!
Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters – Backcover image: macrocefaliamusical.com
Herbie Hancock – Mwandishi, Crossings & Sextant & The Headhunters – albums images: discogs.com/apoplife.nl
Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters & Herbie Hancock – Chameleon (single) images: discogs.com
Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters – Ad image: superseventies.com