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DUST IT OFF: Herbie Hancock’s “Head Hunters”…40 Years Later

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It was not my first exposure to jazz. My dad was the jazz fan who enjoyed the music of Herbie Mann, Wes Montgomery, George Benson, and Ramsey Lewis’ Sun Goddess album. These guys were fairly tame compared to the album I was listening to at my uncle’s place: Miles Davis’ Live Evil. I liked it because it featured an illustrated album cover with a nude, pregnant woman. Surprisingly, my parents didn’t shield my eyes from this and perhaps because I had already been a child raised on Santana’s Abraxas, another cover with not one, but two beautiful nude women. Yes, these covers were considered naughty even though I wasn’t quite sure what made them bad, other than the fact that they showed drawings of a woman’s chichi’s. It was the music that brought me in, so getting into songs like “Sivad”, “Selim”, “Funky Tonk”, and “Inamorata and Narration by Conrad Roberts” was very cool, even this type of jazz was louder, noisier, and nothing like what my dad was into. It was weird, zany, and wacky, and I loved it.

As I got older and started looking at records as much more than the containers of sounds I enjoyed, I would read the back cover, go over the album credits, or look at the photos on the inner sleeves. If you bought an album on Columbia or Epic, it would come with record company sleeves advertising other albums the label wanted to suggest. One album that always seemed to come up was Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters. The cover image was just a thumbnail so it was hard to figure out what was the face on it. I don’t remember searching for it before the age of ten, but after moving from Honolulu to the Pacific Northwest, I found a great resource for music: the public library. I had already borrowed records and cassettes from the Honolulu library so doing this in a new place was not strange, I just had to see what kind of records were there. One of the albums I found was the album with the weird face, and I believe it was the first time I picked it up. I now realized it was some kind of robot mask, but why? I looked at the cover and saw that it had only four songs. This meant there were some long songs and as someone raised along a good share of rock and jazz, I felt these long songs were little mini-journeys someone could take with a record and stereo. By this time, Hancock’s music was only familiar to me through “Rockit”, “Automatic”, “Hardrock”, and “Karabali”. I didn’t yet make the connection between Hancock and Miles Davis, in fact I wasn’t listening to Davis’ music at all at the time. Yet Hancock seemed… no, it didn’t seem, it was available to me at the library and I could borrow it. I was probably 15 or 16 when I borrowed it along with John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things (Atlantic), another artist I had heard of but not really explored. I borrowed them and had taken them home. I was blown away by both. Coltrane’s music and playing seemed very calming, while Hancock’s sound was funky and on the same level of Lewis’ Sun Goddess, but quite different. It was this visit to the library that truly opened the door to the vast world of jazz that I had brief hints of when I would visit record stores in Honolulu, but I had absolutely no idea how deep or lost one could get. I didn’t know if I was ready or not, but I wanted in the room.

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  • Head Hunters was my introduction to what I may have called the “true” Hancock, the “real” Hancock. That’s not saying “Rockit” or “Automatic” was not his real music, but I felt the album was much closer to what he was about as a musician. Keep in mind that I had yet to discover the Mwandishi period, his Blue Note work, or his vast work with Davis’ quintet. Head Hunters represented the funky style of jazz I loved. The album begins with “Chameleon” with one of the most recognizable riffs in the world of electric jazz. It has a nice and calm flow before the song reaches the halfway point and before the synth solo is shrill and twisted and completely different. Was this the music played by the robot? By then, I had the cover in my hand so I knew the man within the can was Hancock himself, but the futuristic mask was meant to repersent the music in some way. I found this song to be more powerful than “Rockit”, but as I’m listening to “Chameleon”, the song seems to end but moves on to a completely different mood and feel. Where was this leading to? I don’t know, but I got into it and enjoyed it when the song went back into the vamp and then the melody which started the song. Close to 16 minutes of bliss and I had to have more.
  • “Watermelon Man” was beyond funky, I loved the African feel but I wondered if it was meant to sound tribal? A ritual? Or just a gathering of musicians playing for the love of music and life? The song felt…slinky. In other words, it was literally like a Slinky toy going down a flight of stairs, where everything grooved and had its own rhythm. There’s a part of the song I was always drawn to, and it was great when Puff Daddy did a remix of a Super Cat song and included that exact segment as the core of “Dolly My Baby”.
  • “Sly” seemed too much to me at first, and not because of how fast the band plays throughout, but there seemed to be too much information going on in the song. The song begins at a calm page, but then it stops and they come out of it fully recharged and ready to play with brilliance. Hancock’s piano solo is incredible, and the band stop not once but a few times before returning to the melody which opened the song.
  • “Vein Melter” was the album closer and upon first listen, it seemed way too slow, or that the song was going nowhere. I didn’t understand it and yet when I played the album, I would never shut the song off. With continued listens, the song then sounded like a return home to the city or home after a long voyage through the unknown, and everyone is going back into the comforts of slumber, or they’re all returning to normality through calm and peace. Again, multiple plays lead to me loving this song along with the rest of the album, and it is a mandatory listen when I put on Head Hunters, I must play it from start to finish.

  • I wasn’t just a kid who enjoyed listening, this is the type of music I wanted to learn how to play. I wanted to be the rock star and play the guitar, then I felt the drums were cooler, especially when it became the instrument my parents refused to buy me. I didn’t want to be just a rock or jazz musician, I simply wanted to play music and if it included jazz, so be it. Head Hunters seemed to be an album that was of importance because of how it always seemed to be available, unlike before where labels would make a release out of print when it would collect dust in the racks. When compact discs were made, labels were slow in releasing popular releases. Eventually, labels realized that fans did want to buy old music if it sounded clean and crisp. Columbia Records were initially slow in opening their catalog but once they did, the jazz releases would eventually flood the market. One of the first Columbia jazz releases I ever saw was Head Hunters, so I bought it and loved the clarity. I would later buy the Legacy remaster, and later the SACD so I could hear the surround sound mix. It wouldn’t be later until I tracked down the original 4.0 quadraphonic mixes and loved all of the differences between the stereo and the quad. When Warner Bros. dipped into their vaults, they released a compilation featuring the three albums Hancock released for the label, so I got into Fat Albert Rotunda, Mwandishi, and Crossings. By then, I was getting heavy into Davis and also finding Hancock’s other records, including the work he did with The V.S.O.P. Quintet, and as with most jazz, one release leads to another, which leads to full catalogs, which leads to exploring sessionographies, the search and listening process is endless.

    Yet despite all of the excursions I would go on with jazz, I always found myself returning to Head Hunters as much as I had already returned to Sun Goddess, and it would become one of my default jazz albums. One can hear this album and imagine its influence on thousands of musicians. One can listen to a lot of hip-hop and hear what this album provided to everyone. One can play this and hear what a lot of artists today are missing and/or overlooking.

    For me, when I started my one-man music project known as Crut, I drew four non-existent members of the non-existent group as a way to describe the aspects of me and the different things I listened to. The DJ of the group was Jeffrey Duduho, a/k/a DJ Tungmaduduho, and he was represented by the robot mask on Head Hunters. In many ways, it described the mentality I had with my music at the time: cover up with masks and maybe people will be more open to listening instead of looking. I just wanted to say “I like Hancock, and I can music this funky, in my own way.”

    Was Head Hunters meant to be important music made specifically for the head? Mind expanding sounds? If so, were Paul Jackson, Victor Moscoso, Bill Summers, Harvey Mason, and Hancock the true rebel hunters of sound for the head? Unsure.

    What I am certain of is. I had once inquired about an extended Legacy edition of Head Hunters, complete with any existing outtakes and/or alternate takes, and the answer I received was that there weren’t any, which could have easily meant that there wasn’t anything worth releasing from what may or may not exist. “Chameleon” does fade out, so why not release a mix of the song that comes to a proper (or improper) ending? Same for “Watermelon Man”. The quadraphonic mix of “Sly” features a few notes that aren’t in the stereo mix, how about any existing count-ins or studio dialogue. Then again, if you entered a recording studio were time is of the essence and money, maybe if there were any false takes, the tape reel was rewound to the beginning and everything that was put on tape was immediately erased with the next take. It is also very much possible that Hancock and friends did single takes of each song and perfection was made in 42 minutes. At least there are existing live recordings, for those who wish to hear how some of these songs were explored in a live setting.

  • What will be the legacy of Head Hunters in 40 years? 20 years? Five years from now? I think its legacy will remain strong and will grow stronger as more people discover this masterpiece, and older musicians rediscover it, while others will discover it for the first time, perhaps leading some to say “why did I ignore hearing this?” It shows the diversity of Hancock and everything he has made in the 50+ years as someone who loves and enjoys music. I hope those who will discover it for the first time will become their own “head hunters” as well.

    • Scott Harrell posted: 14 Oct at 8:00 pm

      Well, we all have our own personal experiences of “milestone” albums (and artists). By 1973, I had already been introduced to Herbie Hancock via “Maiden Voyage” as well as electric Miles. But my interest zoomed when I chanced upon “Crossings” on WB (only 3 cuts on the whole album? Man!) and a little later, Sextant. in other words, the most “out” electronic stuff Herbie did. The funk of Headhunters bordered on commercial (a sin in those days), but by the time I got to “Vein Melter” in SQ Quadraphonic, I became an evangelist to the cause! “Thrust” was awesome as well and I listen to those albums more than the “Mwandishi”-era stuff these days – in addition to the early acoustic gems – notably “Speak Like A Child.”

    • thisisjohnbook posted: 14 Oct at 8:21 pm

      When HEAD HUNTERS was released, I was only two so… I had to catch up a bit once I had personal music favorites. Nice story, BTW, thank you for sharing.

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