The Masterful Mr. Hancock

Herbie Hancock
Head Hunters
1973 | Columbia Records

Herbie Hancock | Head HuntersMany great players have successfully crossed genres, widening the appeal of jazz to a larger and less assuming audience. And funk and R&B were fused with bebop and hard bop long before many assume. This week, I want to pay homage to the album, and the artist, I believe to be the most influential in terms of the electro-funk-jazz movement – Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters.

Head Hunters was released in 1973 on Columbia Records. Though this was not the first time Hancock experimented outside of the bop box, it was the first time the music world, and more specifically pop, recognized jazz in any major way. Hancock incorporated synthesizers neatly into jazz, never sacrificing melody or harmony.

Just before producing Head Hunters, his sextet recorded “experimentally” for Mwandishi (1970, Warner Brothers). It did horribly. Under the influence of Sly Stone, Hancock put together a new band, cut out the guitar and called the group The Head Hunters – Bennie Maupin on soprano and tenor saxophones, Paul Jackson on electric bass, Bill Summers on a plethora of African percussion, as well as the beer bottle, and Harvey Mason on drums. Together, this group captured the sounds of many cultures in a funky realm, producing one fantastic album. Thirty-six years later and it’s still fresh.

All four tracks on Head Hunters have a provocative, well thought out opening, that blossom into a major groove. “Chameleon,” which includes over 15 minutes of serious R&B rhythm, features robust horns and spastic hits on the high hat. With all that funk, standard and classic jazz idiolect fuses two genres together, creating a masterpiece in its own right.

As for my personal favorite, “Watermelon Man,” well, I can never get enough. Head Hunters is not the first time Hancock released this song, but it’s taken to the next level. Opening with Summers blowing into a beer bottle, “Watermelon Man” is a wild journey through the African jungles, veering off into a sexy progression, thanks to Maupin. A perfect blend of surdo, agogo, and hindewhu, spirituality moves this song.

“Sly” is a dedication to Mr. Stone, the man who inspired Hancock to go funk. Beautiful harmonies and a disco groove lend to the smooth and slick musicality. Classy and sassy, the way the Family Stone intended it to be.  As for the final track, “Vein Melter,” it is softer and in some ways more fulfilling. Here, time and space is given more attention and with brushes on the drums an easy jazz melody is achieved.

Head Hunters is one of those rare albums on which one track is better than the next. Not too many albums fall into this category. Regardless if you love jazz or absolutely can’t stand it, any listener can find their self lost in the mystery and cosmos of Herbie Hancock. He is such a legend… a teacher… a muse.

by Genette Nowak

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