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Head Hunters

Head Hunters was a pivotal point in Herbie Hancock’s career, bringing him into the vanguard of jazz fusion. Hancock had pushed avant-garde boundaries on his own albums and with Miles Davis, but he had never devoted himself to the groove as he did on Head Hunters. Drawing heavily from Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, and James Brown, Hancock developed deeply funky, even gritty, rhythms over which he soloed on electric synthesizers, bringing the instrument to the forefront in jazz. It had all of the sensibilities of jazz, particularly in the way it wound off into long improvisations, but its rhythms were firmly planted in funk, soul, and R&B, giving it a mass appeal that made it the biggest-selling jazz album of all time (a record which was later broken). Jazz purists, of course, decried the experiments at the time, but Head Hunters still sounds fresh and vital decades after its initial release, and its genre-bending proved vastly influential on not only jazz, but funk, soul, and hip-hop.” – Allmusic

Liner Notes from the 2013 Complete Columbia Albums Box Set:

“Herbie and The Mwandishi Band were booked to headline a week of 16 shows in Los Angeles at the famed Troubadour club as part of their newly designed and expanded touring regime: rock clubs and college campuses. The nominal opening act was a newly signed group from San Francisco, the Pointer Sisters. David Rubinson managed and produced both the Pointers and Herbie, so it was only natural for one hand to help the other. From the opening notes of the Pointers’ set, there was an immediate ecstatic reaction from the crowd, and by the end of their short set the audience was standing on its feet wanting more.

As The Mwandishi Band played its set, some of the audience was baffled and a few people began to leave the club (well documented in a review that appeared in Down Beat magazine in the summer of 1973). Herbie was struck by the energy and connection the Pointers had with the people, and resolved to find a way to reach a wider and more enthusiastic audience. Coupled with the financial strain that the septet was causing, plus Herbie’s growing spirituality and awareness of cause and effect, Herbie made a conscious decision to take his music in a new direction. He and Rubinson created a new band, retaining Bennie Maupin from The Mwandishi Band, and hiring jazz/funk electric bassist (and former jazz organist) Paul Jackson from Oakland, Afro-centric multi-cultural percussionist Bill Summers from New Orleans, and Harvey Mason on drums, a star of the Los Angeles studio scene. This newly formed quintet played low profile performances around Los Angeles and the Bay Area during the summer of 1973 and then went into the studio soon afterward to record the now-classic Head Hunters.

The impact of the recording started on Black College radio and campuses (particularly at Howard University in Washington DC), and exploded all over the U.S., Japan, and Europe. The LP went Gold in the U.S. within months and the edited single, “Chameleon,” ultimately became a hit at commercial radio and in the dance clubs, and was adopted by jazz-funk bands everywhere as an instrumental feature. On Head Hunters, Herbie returned to his roots as a composer of melodies and phrases that could take hold of the listener’s mind and wrapped them in a groove that went to the roots of public ritual music. With Mason and Summers, Herbie re-worked his first hit, “Watermelon Man,” to fit into the new sound of this group, and this new arrangement became a highlight on his concert tours.” – Bob Belden, 2013 Sony Box Set Liner Notes

1996 Remastered Edition Liner Notes By Herbie Hancock:

By the end of 1972, my feeling was that the sextet had reached a peak, and it sustained that peak for a while, and we tried to go beyond that, but it was like fighting uphill. We had found a way to make this music happen, that is, each musician kind of finds a way to get a real rapport going, a certain musical direction. But the sound wasn’t going any further and it just wound up (to me) less focused. We lost the connection somehow.

I suspected that my own energy needed something else. It was more spiritual, and it had more to do with me as a human being. 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.

People were evolving. We began to hear jazz artists’ interests, including and paying attention to Rock-and-Roll, including that into whatever they were doing. It was a musical reality that was happening, and jazz musicians could take almost nothing or anything and make music out of it. It’s the nature of jazz to take almost nothing, and develop it, and make something out of it.

I was beginning to feel that we (the sextet) were playing this heavy kind of music, and was tired of everything being heavy. I wanted to play something lighter. We had this music that we were doing, and the thing was, how could we take this music in a new direction by making it more palatable, but still keep this essence of our original philosophy? The answer was not so much to add a balance of stuff from Rock or R&B, although we touched on this with the albums Crossings and Sextant.

It happened one day. I was chanting. I knew I didn’t want to play the music I had been playing, but I didn’t know what music I wanted to play. I hadn’t quite figured it out. I don’t remember having any other idea, but what was uppermost in my mind was that I knew didn’t want to play what had been playing. I wanted to feel more earthy and be a little more grounded. I wanted to find the answers within myself.

The more I chanted, the more my mind opened up, relaxed and began to wander. I started thinking about Sly Stone and how much 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. My unconscious reaction was, “No, I don’t want to do that.”

What saw in this reaction was seeing in myself the same things I hated about many other jazz musicians that put jazz on a pedestal, and at the same time putting Funk and Rock on a secondary level. I don’t like that about anything. There’s room for everything. But noticed my gut reaction was the same kind of hierarchical look of putting jazz on a pedestal. I said to myself, “Whoa! What are you doing?” I knew I had to take the idea seriously. Would I like to have a funky band that played the kind of music Sly or someone like that was playing? My response was, “Actually, yes.” – Herbie Hancock, December 1996

1992 Sony Legacy First Compact Disc Edition Liner Notes:

This is the album that busted it all wide open for an entire generation of jazzoids.

Myself included. The largest selling jazz album in history, Head Hunters now enjoys platinum status. But more than that, it sounds as fresh and funky as it did nearly two decades ago.

“A lot of hip-hop artists are taking from Head Hunters,” Herbie Hancock ponders. “I guess it points to the idea that the roots of hip-hop are in these kinds of albums. Once they heard that ‘Chameleon’ and ‘Watermelon Man’ fit right in there, they realized that that’s where it really came from.”

Born April 12, 1940 in Chicago, Herbie Hancock began studying piano at the age of seven. Classically trained, he later formed his own jazz ensemble in high school. Eventually he was giggin’ with Coleman Hawkins and Donald Byrd. In 1963, Herbie hooked up with Miles Davis.

“It wasn’t so much about what Miles said that taught me. It was mostly what he did that taught me. He didn’t have to say a lot about music in order to be an influence on you. Jus by his playing…you learned a lot.” Herbie played keyboards for Miles for five years. The respect is mutual. “He was such a great listener and had a great ability to be able to use the ideas that came from what the other sidemen played.” Hancock explains, “He would integrate all of that in his own solos and make it sound like true intervention. He would react to what we were playing. That was one thing that really impressed me about Miles’ playing. I’ve tried to incorporate that in my music.”

The funky magic is evident on Head Hunters. “One of Miles’ greatest abilities was to be able to take a composition apart and take all the fat off of it, leave the lean, and leave a lot of room for improvisation. Like ‘Chameleon’, there’s not a lot in there. There’s a lot of space.”

Head Hunters was on the cutting edge of the revolutionary changes that jazz music was going through in the early ’70s. Jazz players were moving from the smaller clubs to larger arenas. The sound became electric. “Why not? Jazz is eclectic. Why can’t it borrow from rock ‘n’ roll? Some musicians decided to incorporate some of the rock elements into jazz. That brought about what was later called ‘fusion’.” Herbie’s Head Hunters also added the colors of africa to their music. “I don’t think we’d have rock ‘n’ roll or pop music in any form without Africa. The roots of the music came from there.”

Hancock remembers back to the inception of Head Hunters. “I wanted to actually do kind of a funk album. I didn’t know it was going to be a combination jazz and funk at the time that we started off. As it evolved, I liked what it was. Benny (Maupin) was a multi-instrument player and I wanted to have something that had a lot of colors. Benny played all the woodwinds.”

“Harvey Mason was recommended to me by Billy Hart. He said if ever wanted to do something that was in the rock-funk area, that Harvey was the one to get. He covered a wide area and was a creative player. Every beat on the album was original. He created his own funk. That beat on ‘Chameleon’, nobody ever played that before. Harvey Swings his tail off. He plays with a lot of dynamics and that’s missing in a lot of funk.”

Herbie’s other band members include Paul Jackson (bass) and Bill Summers (percussion). “Paul was a suggestion from David Rubinson, the manager/producer. Paul lived in the San Francisco Bay area. He also played both jazz and funk…a very original player. Bill Summers also lived nearby. He studied ethnomusicology, specializing in African music. He’s got all these concepts from African music that are really new to us.”

While the late ’60s-early ’70s was overwhelmed With screaming guitars, a la Jimi Hendrix, Hancock took a different approach. “The one thing that made this album original, was the fact that I didn’t have a guitar. The guitar was extremely popular back then in pop music, but I had heard about the Clavinet. It had a guitar-like sound, like a cross between a guitar and a harpsichord. I thought maybe if I played the Clavinet in a rhythmic way like a guitar, I wouldn’t have to use a guitar player. That’s what I did.”

“Sly,” “Vein Melter,” “Watermelon Man” and the classic “Chameleon” made up this masterpiece which has withstood the test of time. “‘Sly’ was for Sly Stone. It’s dedicated to Sly… but it wasn’t designed to indicate that the tune was influenced by his music or anything like that. Miles had a major influence on Head Hunters. Especially on tunes like ‘Sly’ and ‘Vein Melter’. There was a very open approach in the improvisations and in the structures in the tunes that allow for a lot of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic freedom.”

“Watermelon Man” was something Herbie had done with Donald Byrd about a decade earlier. “The album was a collaborative effort. Harvey Mason thought we should do a new version of ‘Watermelon Man.’The conception was basically his. Except the beginning of the tune, that was Bill Summers’ idea. The intro was actually from Pygmy music with Bill blowing in a beer bottle and making a melodic, rhythmic thing.”

And then of course there’s the familiar funk hit, “Chameleon.” “That tune was a combination of me coming up with the line and an idea that came from my former manager David Rubinson, who produced the record. The bass line is the real key to it, and the melody is very simple. It’s based on a two-note motif…actually, it’s one note repeated. Simplicity is almost always better. You can get simplicity out of complexity if you’re clever enough. That’s how you get complexity over to the general public… to put it in a simple form.”

Head Hunters was the vehicle that opened the eyes ff many to jazz. It was a funky crossover bridge to the other side. It never ceases to amaze me, the full circle music (life) can take. Keyboard master Herbie Hancock provided us with the classic jazz standards “Maiden Voyage” (his own personal favorite) and “Dolphin Dance.” Yet the boundaries of his creativity have no limits.

“When I first started with music, I started with Classical music, but I never said I was going to stay with just that.” My roots are in jazz, but that’s the best foundation to have in order to jump off into other areas.”

Head Hunters blazed new trails on the inroads of jazz. Today, its guiding light continues to inspire the vision of tomorrow. – Scott H. Thompson

Note: according to David Rubinson the original title for “Chameleon” was “Caesar Salad.”

Produced by David Rubinson/Herbie Hancock for David Rubinson & Friends, Inc.

Recorded August – September, 1973 by Fred Catero and Jeremy Zatkin at Wally Heider Studios, S.F. and by Dane Butcher and John Vieira at Different Fur Trading Co., S.F.

A product of Catero Sound Company, San Francisco

Originally released October 26, 1973 as Columbia LP KC-32731

Billboard chart info. – Pop 13, 47 wks; R&B 2, 46 wks; Jazz 1 

Certified Platinum Album

See Flood for live versions of “Chameleon” and “Watermelon Man”

Instrument Glossary:

ARP Odyssey – ARP released this analog, duo-phonic, compact studio version of the 2600 which featured the synthesizer and keyboard together as one piece of equipment. Herbie played this instrument on his album Head Hunters in 1973.

Minimoog – First released in 1970, this monophonic analog synthesizer offered musicians a synthesizer they could easily take on tour for live performance because of its size and durability. This instrument was also known for its ability to produce rich bass sounds and was often used as the ‘Minimoog Bass.’ You can hear it in the famous bass line that opens “Chameleon” (Head Hunters).

ARP Soloist – ARP’s monophonic analog synthesizer featuring 30 preset sounds and designed to sit on top and accompany an organ. This instrument can be heard on several of Herbie’s albums including Head Hunters.