Week 32: Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters

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This week, we are looking at Herbie Hancock’s classic record, Head Hunters. Released in 1973 by Sony Music, this record blends a number of styles; jazz, r&b, blues, funk, world music, pop, and a few eastern influences are all brewed together to make this four-track record what it is: fusion. Head Hunters made quite an impression on its listeners upon its release, and only served to bolster Herbie Hancock’s status as a musical idol.

Herbie’s 12th studio album, recorded in September of 1973 in San Fransisco at Different Fur Trading Co. and Wally Heider Studios, the record was recorded by the Head Hunters, a group that would record several other albums with Herbie, including Thrust (1974), Man-Child (1975), Secrets (1976), and Sunlight (1977). The group is comprised of Harvey Mason on drums; Paul Jackson on bass and marimbula; Bill Summers on percussion; Bennie Maupin on saxophones, bass clarinet, and alto flute; and Herbie Hancock on Fender Rhodes, synthesizers, and clavinets.

The record begins with “Chameleon,” undeniably one of Herbie’s biggest hits. The track begins with the signature bass line, gradually joined by different elements of groove and harmonic structure. This epic piece goes through several transformations along its almost 16-minute journey. The next track hits right into another one of Herbie’s signature tunes, “Watermelon Man.” Beginning with a mix of synths, pan flutes, and some shouting vocals, the bass and drums join in with their steady groove. The introduction of “Watermelon Man” contains influences of Eastern European/Asian culture, such as open fourth melodic figures and percussion sounds. This is a re-release of “Watermelon Man,” originally released during Herbie’s hard-bop days.

The third track, “Sly,” a tribute to Sly Stone (the frontman of Sly & The Family Stone), begins in a straightforward manner with its bluesy, catchy melody following several rhythmic hits. The tune soon turns a bit more experimental as new sections,  instrumentation, and harmonic structures are introduced. Towards the end of the tune, the groove picks up and becomes almost manic, with each element of the band improvising over the form and harmony.

The record is closes with “Vein Melter,” one of the more somber tracks off this record. Featuring Herbie and saxophonist Bennie Maupin, the track is introduced by the kick drum and bass on a repeating riff. Soon, the saxophone, synths, and Fender Rhodes make their entrance, laying down the foundation of the harmony, while a broken, segmented, marching snare groove glues the song together, and strings fill the space between the groove and melodic lines.

Head Hunters is currently ranked at 498 in Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of all Time.

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          February 11, 2017