Head Hunters (1973) is Herbie Hancock’s twelfth studio album, and my personal favorite of his (sorry, Thrust). The 1973 jazz-funk album was a big landmark in not only Hancock’s career, but the genre as a whole; taking the lessons he learned from playing with Miles Davis (the father of jazz-funk fusion) and perfecting his own style made Head Hunters intricate and innovative enough to become one of the most influential jazz-funk albums of all time.
Chameleon is the first track on the album, and is a great jumping-off point for anyone new to the genre or the artist. The bassy-synth intro line is instantly recognizable and consistent throughout most of the piece, grounding it and giving it identity while also cementing its funk roots. Beyond that, Harvey Mason plays a very funky drum groove both from a music theory standpoint and a listening one: strong accented 8th notes on the hi-hat leading the 4/4 charge, heavy but well-placed kicks supporting important notes in the bass line, and plenty of snare ghost-note nuance to go with it. These bass and drum lines help distinguish the piece as well as provide a typical rhythm section “pillow” for soloists to lean on during shred sections; and boy, there are some shred sections. Herbie Hancock is an incredible keyboardist, stealing ideas, repeating rhythms, associating with the melody, and using off-key notes to attract attention; after all, one does not get to train with the great (and terribly picky) Miles Davis for nothing. Hancock’s fantastic keyboardmanship is only accentuated by a defining characteristic of Head Hunters: the guitar. Or rather, the lack of it. That’s right, there are no guitars in the entire album, and everything that sounds like one is likely a clavinet. When you can’t rely on a guitar to climax a song with a shred section, you gotta do it yourself: loud distortion and pure speed on the strings gets replaced by precision, grooviness, and deliberation on the keys. The overall flow of the piece really benefits from this as well, tying in each section more closely and placing a bigger emphasis on the instrumentation rather than the instruments. The aforementioned flow is also incredible in it’s own right, and presents itself in a variety of ways: a noticeable tempo change from the beginning to the end, several very unique and well-arranged sections, engaging pickups and interludes, and carefully placed solos accenting each section just at the right moment. Chameleon stands out as a composition with vague hints of tradition hidden behind layers of innovation and pure groove; pure groove that extends beyond just the first song.
Ah, Watermelon Man. Watermelon Man is such an iconic piece, and actually predates the album by about a decade, first appearing in Hancock’s 1962 debut album, Takin’ Off. Similarly to Chameleon, Watermelon Man also starts with an captivating intro, this time a little less traditional, however. Beer bottles, yelps, and other unusual sounds introduce the song with a lot of flair, and are a welcome sound to the tired ears of any traditional Western music fan. A bass and drum line soon enter to give greater context to the strange yelps and African percussion, followed by a smooth melodic line to transition into a much more low-key section quite definitive of the piece. Hancock has described the piece as drawing heavily from the name, attempting to emulate the scene of a watermelon salesman at a street corner; I want to say that he has achieved this emulation with incredible precision, but I have never interacted with a street-corner watermelon salesman before, yet expect it to sound something like this. Watermelons aside, this piece has a lot of great horn solos and a lot of dynamics. The difference between sections is subtly introduced and developed, only to be yanked away suddenly, jarring the listener into wondering how we got to an enthusiastic horn solo from a guy blowing into a beer bottle, and being a little surprised that we didn’t realize it until it already happened.
The third song, Sly, is named after Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone, and for good reason; the piece is dedicated to his work. It begins very simply, at least in comparison to the previous tracks, due to the fact that short staccato phrases introduce the song. Instead of defining the vibe of the song, the staccato accents contrast it; the piece carries a very suave feel in the beginning, and Hancock’s superior musicianship is displayed through his maintenance of the smooth tone underlying his incorporation of sharper sounds. Soon the piece changes into more of a Watermelon Man feel for a section, preceding a false ending that sets up a really upbeat and fast section of the piece defined by quick chops-reliant jazz drumming and bold, short, sharp notes forming the core of the sax solo. This speedy section is also accompanied by great rhythmic and melodic diversity, with many stacking sounds providing a polyphonic contrast that hammers home a feel I can only describe as an “angry Tyson,” because it feels like jabs are getting thrown a hundred times a second and it’s all one can do to bob and weave before getting hit again. But a lull comes in the form of the same false ending that heralded the conclusion of the smooth section, only to precede another quick one! This will be the section we ride out the piece on, so I’ll take a moment to discuss the wider musical context of this album: Hancock began his career with a sextet, only one member of which (Bennie Maupin, saxophone) stayed to record Head Hunters. The new group was called, you guessed it, the Head Hunters, and was a tendril of Hancock’s musical ambitions focused more on earthy, lighter music as opposed to the music he had been playing previously, which he described as “ethereal kind of far-out spacey stuff” and a “heavy kind of music.” It’s a bit ironic in my opinion, because the next album, Thrust, would literally have a spaceship on the cover, but regardless, the two albums are my favorite in the genre and deserve no disrespect.
Vein Melter. Gee whiz, what’s in a name, huh? I really don’t know what it means, or even if it fits the song, but it’s certainly got some flair. Besides having an original name, this song is a slow, gentle giant, seeking to do no harm and simply exist peacefully; it does so with a slow tempo and soft instrumentation. Despite the song’s slow tempo, it goes by fast, probably induced by the captivating yet subtle soloing of Hancock and Maupin; Maupin especially shines in this piece with his opening solo setting a beautiful and seductive tone to frame the rest of the piece. This is all reinforced by Mason’s restraint on the kit and a variety of supporting percussion, as well as some ambient sounds backgrounding the quieter sections of the solos and even some orchestral strings here and there. There is also a notable woodwind presence, with assorted flutes really driving home the slow, enticing aspects of the piece and contrasting the synth-ier parts. I truly wish I had more to say about this song, but by its very nature it is a piece better listened to than talked about.
So that’s it, only four songs comprising an album that doesn’t even span 45 minutes, yet was so potent that it set the framework of an entire genre for years to come. Head Hunters is a must-listen for anyone interested in funk, jazz, and especially funk-jazz fusion; it’s also a must-listen for anyone with ears, because you’re wasting them if you’ve never fed them the delectable four-course meal that is Head Hunters.