On the heels of winning the album of the year Grammy for River: The Joni Letters, Herbie Hancock now receives an even bigger and more exclusive honor: Having Head Hunters inducted into Frumpzilla’s F-Tunes’ Hall of Fame.
By 1973 Herbie Hancock had long been established as a stellar Jazz musician and artist. I use the qualifier “Jazz”, because Hancock’s exposue and mass appeal was perhaps still limited to that genre’s enthusiasts, or at least music enthusiasts in general. Combining elements of Jazz, Funk, Rock, R&B and African rhythms into a sound that would eventually be known simply as “Fusion”, Head Hunters made Herbie Hancock a household name.
Jazz, and music in gernal, was going through some revolutionary changes in the late 60’s and early 1970’s; electronics and synthesized sounds were beginning to enter the fray, and the guitar had established itself as the driving musical force in virtaully all forms of popular music. Though Herbie shuns the guitar here, preferring to experiement with the clavinet instead, Head Hunters still qualifies as being on the cutting edge of this eras movements and arguably sits at the apex of Fusion Jazz’s potential.
Hancock has said that one of his main influences for Head Hunters was the music of Sly and the Family Stone: “I started thinking about Sly Stone and how much I loved his music and how funky “Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself” is. I was hearing that song over and over again.” From the very first notes of Head Hunters, the now ubiquitously recognzied bassline of “Chameleon”, Sly’s influence is easily recognized.
Simply put, Head Hunters makes it difficult to keep still. In fact, if you can manage to remain completely idle, not even tapping a foot or something, throughout the entire 15+ minutes of “Chameleon”, I’d like to check your pulse. Head Hunters also makes it difficult to not picture yourself in a montage of virtually every 70’s cop/detective B movie, and, depending on your state of mind, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Of course, with the whole “I feel like I’m a bad ass PI in a 1976 film about inner-city drug lords” effect in mind, new listeners might hastily dismiss the grooves of tracks such as “Sly” and “Vein Melter” as cliche. But then that would be ignoring the context, not to mention forgetting that what gives rise to a cliche, the source if you will, should’t be categorized as cliche itself.
Despite the appeal of “Chameleon”, and it certainly is appealing, the reworking of “Watermelon Man”, which Hancock had previously recorded as a standard Jazz tune about a decade earlier, is the standout track for me. For one, clocking in at under 7 minutes long, it’s a bit more accessible than the other 3 tracks on the album. More importantly however, the song has an inescapably catchy, funked up backbeat and groove that still sounds fresh 35 years later. Such beats and textures are characteristic of the entire album, and the brass is there to remind you that you’re actually listening to “Jazz” (and dancing to it?).
By the time you hear the album’s last note, it should be exceedinly clear that Head Hunters has had a profound influence on a plethora of artists and genres; Pop Rock to Hip Hop, Funk, Jazz, you name it. Assuming it isn’t on the rack already, it’s certainly worthy of your collection. John Hancock? Ha, it’s Herbie Hancock…
2. Watermelon Man
4. Vein Melter
Sonic Upholstery: 9.0
I&I (Impact & Influence): 9.5
Replay Value: High
Overall: 9.0, Essential