“Head Hunters” by Herbie Hancock (1973)
Traditionalists will hate to admit it, but jazz reached its commercial zenith when combined with elements of rock for a musical style called fusion.
Whether the artistic component matched the sales is up for debate, but fusion still has plenty of fans, even though its viability petered out some three decades ago.
Keyboardist Herbie Hancock had been highly visible on the jazz scene, as a solo artist and as a member of Miles Davis’ band, since he was in his early 20s. By 1973, he was ready to embrace fusion in a manner that combined funky, synthesizer-driven grooves with inflections of traditional jazz.
The result was “Head Hunters,” a wholly accessible album for the average listener when compared with some of Davis’ pioneering forays into fusion. The album quickly raced to the top of Billboard’s jazz chart, hit No. 2 on the R&B chart and, to the great delight of Columbia Records executives, topped out at No. 13 on the Billboard 200.
All that made it the biggest-selling jazz album to date.
Of course, commercial success sometimes runs inverse to the musicianship involved, but “Head Hunters” deserves to be a part of any discriminating listener’s collection. Hancock teams with woodwinds player Bennie Maupin, bassist Paul Jackson and percussionists Harvey Mason and Bill Summers to present a quartet of expertly constructed songs.
Leading off is “Chameleon,” a group composition that features one of the most recognizable riffs of the ’70s. As Hancock and the rhythm section lay down the groove, Maupin overdubs himself to create a horn section that drives the melodic element. Hancock follows with a tasteful synthesizer solo before the song switches gears entirely.
The middle section of “Chameleon” is more reminiscent of Hancock’s highly regarded material he recorded for Blue Note, with his electric piano flowing breezily on top of Jackson’s fluid bass playing, backed by suitable synthesizer flourishes. Then it’s back to the original theme to conclude 15-plus minutes worth of jazz’s most essential compositions.
The album continues with an update of “Watermelon Man,” a song Hancock wrote for his debut album, “Takin’ Off” (1962); it later became a top-10 hit for Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria. The “Head Hunters” arrangement opens with the unconventional sounds of Summers blowing into a beer bottle before the song heads into more familiar territory, using an arrangements that’s credited to Mason.
“Sly” takes its title from one of Hancock’s prime inspirations for “Head Hunters.” As he wrote in the liner notes:
“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 and over again. Then I had this mental image of me playing in Sly’s band, playing something funky like that. Then the next image that came to me was about my own band playing in Sly Stone’s musical direction.”
The song “Sly” opens in a fairly relaxed manner before picking up the tempo with a section featuring Maupin’s fluid horn playing. Hancock keeps up the pace with an electric piano solo before the song concludes in the way it started.
The final track, “Vein Melter,” wraps up the album in a slow, steady rhythm that allows soloists Maupin and Hancock to play some of their most expressive melodies. Columbia released an edited version of the song as a single.
“Head Hunters” is in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, a fitting place for an album that stands as perhaps fusion’s defining moment.