Head Hunters by Herbie Hancock is among the best and most influential jazz-funk albums in jazz history. Featuring classic tracks like Chameleon and Watermelon Man, join us for a dive into the classic recording.
Herbie Hancock has been one of the most important pianists and keyboard stylists for sixty years, and this does not take into consideration his stature as a composer.
The Chicago-born Herbie Hancock was hailed as a child prodigy, playing Mozart at an early age.
As a jazz musician, he was too young for the bebop era (Herbie was born in 1940), but by the time he made his recording debut under his own name at just twenty-two he already assimilated the language along with the hard bop of the time into his vocabulary.
He was looking to use this as a starting point to develop his own music and original compositions. This he did to much acclaim, and to the benefit of Blue Note records who had the foresight to sign the gifted young pianist and composer.
Herbie Hancock’s Early Career
Hanock’s first album for the imprint, Takin’ Off, proved that this had been a very savvy decision on the part of Blue Note founders, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff.
The album boasted a frontline of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and Dexter Gordon on tenor, and produced Hancock’s first classic composition, ‘Watermelon Man’.
The pianist’s tenure with Blue Note would produce several more wonderful albums including Maiden Voyage in 1965 which is arguably Hancock’s finest achievement, bringing forth more compositions that would come to be regarded as standards such as ‘Dolphin Dance’ and ‘The Eye Of The Hurricane’.
As if this was not enough to put him in pole position as one of the leading lights on the jazz scene, he was also at this time a member of the Miles Davis quintet.
The band is now known as the trumpeter’s Second Great Quintet, with Wayne Shorter on tenor, bassist Ron Carter the seventeen-year-old Tony Williams on drums.
With Miles, Hancock pushed his playing to the limits.
With the famous Live At The Plugged Nickel album recorded in 1965 the quintet had taken the art of small group improvisation based on standards as far, it could go with the group’s use of ‘time, no changes’.
Herbie would stay with Miles for another three years as the trumpeter’s music evolved into something altogether new, using original tunes from the band and instruments like electric piano and bass guitar along with rock rhythms to push the boundaries of jazz.
Although he had officially left the band, Hancock watched Miles’ music with interest taking note of developments such as the ground-breaking recordings, In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew.
Hancock furthered his own interest in the use of the electric piano and in the burgeoning fusion music that was becoming ever more present with bands like John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report – fronted by Wayne Shorter and keyboard maestro Josef Zawinul (all of whom had played on Miles’ recent albums).
Hancock recorded the 1969 album Fat Albert Rotunda and followed this with two more recordings Mwandishi and Crossings (1970 and 1971 respectively) for his new label Warner.
This full tilt immersion in fusion music would find its most perfect form for Hancock in the epoch-making Head Hunters.
Head Hunters: A Best Selling Jazz Fusion Album
Recorded and released in the last quarter of 1973, the quick turnaround between laying down the tracks and the album hitting the record shops was quite a feat.
Head Hunters proved to be a big hit and one of the biggest-selling jazz albums of all time.
Featuring electric synthesizers, elements of funk music and Hancock’s trademark Fender Rhodes, the release of the album was a defining moment in both Hanock’s career and in the history of jazz.
The only survivor from the early Warner albums is saxophonist/bass clarinettist and flautist, Bennie Maupin and his contribution is crucial to the success of the set.
His playing on tenor is tough with a big full sound that punches through the rhythm section while his playing on the higher-pitched saxello and soprano saxophones dominate, riding above keyboards, bass and percussion, and adding excitement and tension to the music.
Of the four titles recorded, Hancock revisits ‘Watermelon Man’ from his debut album with a completely fresh arrangement. The slow groove that comes in after the introduction perfectly suits Maupin’s reading of the melody on soprano.
Understated yet totally in tune with Herbie’s updated voicings and score, ‘The closing ‘Vein Melter’ is a cleverly worked composition with its gentle introduction featuring Maupin’s bass clarinet before the string sounds from the synthesizers enhance the dreamy and reflective nature of the piece. Hancock follows this with an ethereal Fender Rhodes contribution that is simultaneously a solo, and not a solo.
However, the real meat and drink are to be found in ‘Sly’ – a tribute to Sly Stone of Sly and The Family Stone – and the fifteen-minute tour de force, ‘Chameleon’.
The opening riff sets things up for the duration but what is clever is that the emphasis on the groove is always present but never dominating.
A tight rhythmic motif that keeps the music buoyant, and lets the music’s main events unfold around it. The punchy theme is stated by Bennie Maupin on tenor before giving way to Hancock’s synth solo.
Throughout the solo, there is a judicious use of the pitch bend wheel but the shrillness of the electronic instrument in the mix shows that the technology lags behind the inventiveness of the player.
Order is quickly restored at around the halfway mark when Hancock switches to the Fender Rhodes with a fine solo.
As the solo gives way to the punchy theme statement that characterises ‘Chameleon’ with the inventive use of synth backdrops, Maupin gets an all too brief solo on tenor sax that is every bit as inventive as that of the leader.
‘Sly’ opens with another great melody, taken at a steady yet slow tempo, and some lovely soprano playing.
This gives way to another brief and punchy theme before the tempo and rhythmic urgency move up a gear and Bennie Maupin, this time on saxello, kicks up a storm in his most impassioned outing of the set.
Hancock follows with his solo again on the electric piano which allows him to be more rhythmically adventuress and flowing that the synthesizers of the time could, and he digs in hard. This is another big number and pushes the music and the musicians in a most satisfying performance.
In only a few short years after the release of Head Hunters, the fusion revolution was not so much running at full steam ahead but running out of steam. Viewed with suspicion by the jazz purists, and in lesser hands was often plagued by excessive displays of virtuosity that bordered on the self-indulgent.
However, fifty years on Head Hunters by Herbie Hancock is an album that, although not without its flaws, promised much and delivered.
Discover more great jazz-funk albums in our list of the best fusion albums in jazz history and check out other incredible albums from Herbie’s huge back-catalogue in our top ten list of his best records.