In 1973, Herbie Hancock surprised his many of his followers with his new album ‘Head Hunters’. The record seemed to mark yet another direction for the pianist and composer who had developed his sound under the tutelage of Miles Davis who had recognized Hancock’s prodigious talent early on, enlisting him into his Second Great Quintet. However, Hancock was not solely a band member as he also wrote his own compositions, released on his own signature LPs such as ‘Empyrean Isles’, ‘Maiden Voyage’ and his score for Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic sixties film ‘Blowup’.
In the early seventies, Hancock explored the jazz avant-garde, continuing his musical journey in the wake of his work on Davis’ ‘In a Silent Way’ and the blueprint for jazz-fusion ‘Bitches Brew’ (on which he did not play although the album was a major influence). He released a trio of records coined the ‘Mwandishi’ albums that were characterised by their spacey and experimental sonic excursions. On ‘Sextant’, the final release of this triumvirate, Hancock further pushed the boundaries into the future by being one of the first jazz keyboardists to use the latest synthesizers such as the ARP and Moog alongside a host of other keyboards including the Fender Rhodes, Clavinet and the Mellotron popularised by The Beatles and The Moody Blues. In many ways, ‘Sextant’ sits happily aside some of Krautrock’s finest offerings from the likes of Can and Kraftwerk.
For his follow-up, Hancock wanted to ground his music, returning back to Earth after his stratospheric ventures. It has also been said that he was underwhelmed by the response by both fans and critics and the financial situation was possibly an additional incentive to pursue another music direction. There were also new musical inspirations that compelled his artistic desire to try something different. The R&B-inflected rock of Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown’s live improvisations and Stevie Wonder’s cross-over future funk were certainly seeding ideas in Hancock’s psyche.
There was also his early cohort, trumpeter Donald Byrd’s work with the Mizell Brothers. Albums like ‘Black Byrd’ and ‘Street Lady’ along with the Mizell-produced ‘Blacks and Blues’ by Bobbi Humphrey were changing the face of jazz in 1973. Hancock cherry-picked the Mizell’s featured drummer, Harvey Mason, as half of his new rhythm section, alongside bassist Paul Jackson (with whom I had the pleasure of enjoying more than a few cocktails on a long plane journey to Japan back in the day). He also enlisted percussionist Bill Summers but kept reed player Bennie Maupin from his former line-up to record the new album.
‘Head Hunters’ certainly funk-ed things up and many jazz traditionalists (oxymoron?) decried Hancock’s expedition into a territory they deemed more mainstream. It certainly does sound more accessible than ‘Sextet’ even though there is a common denominator of electronics on both albums. However, Herbie-gettin’-down should not have been such a surprise as songs like the original version of ‘Watermelon Man’ and ‘Cantaloupe Island’ from his sixties recordings are a harbinger for Hancock’s later funky forays.
In response to the purists, one could argue the very idea of jazz conjures freedom. Although it has enjoyed serious crossover appeal to R&B, funk and rock fans alike, ‘Head Hunters’ is yet another branch of a genre whose roots of swing and syncopation have often been an invitation to the dance floor. In addition, ‘Head Hunters’ is, well, heady. I recently discovered it features on Rolling Stone’s ’40 Greatest Stoner Albums’. What an accolade.
But the greatest accolades have come from fans as ‘Head Hunters’ remains one of the biggest selling jazz albums of all time. It has been a major influence on subsequent musical genres having been sampled in hip-hop (2Pac, Nas, Digable Planets) and pop (Beck and George Michael). And it is the record’s widespread and enduring significance that has ensured its standing as a Classic Album Sundays Album of the Month.
Recorded: September 1973
Released: October 13, 1973
Producer: Herbie Hancock, David Rubinson