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HERBIE HANCOCK - Head Hunters cover
4.40 | 59 ratings | 8 reviews
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Album · 1973

Filed under Funk Jazz


A1 Chameleon 15:41
A2 Watermelon Man 6:29
B1 Sly 10:18
B2 Vein Melter 9:10

Total Time: 41:47


- Bill Summers /Agogô, Percussion [Log Drum, Balafon, Beer Bottle, Gankoqui], Cabasa, Congas, Whistle [Hindewho], Shekere, Surdo
- Harvey Mason /Drums [Yamaha]
- Bennie Maupin /Flute [Alto], Saxello,
Saxophone [Soprano, Tenor], Clarinet [Bass]
- Paul Jackson / Marimbula, Electric Bass
- Herbie Hancock /Synthesizer [Arp Odyssey, Arp Soloist], Electric Piano, Clavinet [Hohner D 6], Pipe

About this release

Columbia – KC 32731(US)

Recorded at Wally Heider Studios, San Francisco

Thanks to snobb, EZ Money for the updates


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In many ways I equate Herbie Hancock with the legendary Bob Dylan as far as being an enormous influence on the evolution of modern music. Dylan courageously followed his personal muse wherever she led without question or resistance, oftentimes to the consternation of his legion of followers and, in the process, forced what seemed to be conflicting genres to not only cohabitate but to compliment each other. In the early 70s Herbie realized that the burgeoning phenomenon known as funk (at that time budding in both the rock and the R&B territories) wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan craze and that, if handled properly, could be brought into the realm of 20th century jazz. Both artists suffered much critical grief from conservative traditionalists for their bold experimentations involving what were considered sacred cows yet their quests for creative fulfillment overrode any fears of exile from popular acceptance and now, in perspective, they are rightly heralded as pioneers who not only broke down barriers but opened up new lands for musicians the world over to migrate into.

In the case of this, the debut album from Hancock’s “Headhunters” group, it is rightly considered to be one of (if not THE) vanguard recordings that gave birth to funk/rock jazz fusion. Despite having worked with some of the greatest jazz players in history during the sixties Herbie began to feel stymied musically and wanted to wade into uncharted waters to see what kind of ripples he could instigate. He put together a five-piece ensemble of like-minded explorers and set out to carve out a rebellious niche in the institution of popular music. On October 13, 1973 this album hit the record store racks and, as they say, the rest is history. It appealed to fans of a wide variety of styles and, in its own humble way, made jazz music in general more palatable for millions who had always considered it to be too high-brow and, therefore, repelling because of its elitism. Not intending to be condescending in any manner, this was music even commoners could relate to.

Starting off with “Chameleon,” Hancock’s ultra funky synthesizer bass line efficiently reels you into the boat as the rest of the band joins in one at a time before the song’s playful melody arrives and solidifies the deal. Herbie steps up into the spotlight first with an adventurous synth ride but, as wild as it is, he never allows it to run amok and overshadow the imminent groove. After Paul Jackson’s bass and Harvey Mason’s drums alter the landscape a bit Hancock smoothes things out and delivers a cool Rhodes piano solo. The tune is very structured so it’s not simply a jam session but a well-arranged piece of exquisite jazz. “Watermelon Man” (a number Herbie composed and published back in ’62) follows and it’s a fine example of letting a song build up from humble beginnings (percussionist Bill Summers imitating primitive African pipes by blowing into an empty beer bottle) to eventually walk upright in its melodic fullness. One is struck by the group’s ability to achieve subtlety without sacrificing the essential momentum generated by the solid rhythm track laid down by Jackson and Mason. The tune gracefully exits as it entered.

“Sly,” (a tribute to Mr. Stone and his family) is next and while it’s more ethereal in nature it never veers off the beaten path so much as to become inaccessible to the jazz neophyte. Strong dynamics lead to the underrated Bennie Maupin’s hot soprano saxophone lead that streaks atop fast-paced drums, clavinet and congas. Hancock’s penetrating electric piano then enters the fray with great enthusiasm yet I would encourage the listener to pay special attention to what Harvey is doing on his trap set beneath it all. His superb drumming motivates and encourages the whole number as it escalates to a furious pitch. They end with “Vein Melter” wherein a single bass drum beat initiates a mysterious atmosphere that grows to be inhabited by floating soprano sax, delicate Rhodes piano and airy synthesizer lines. Herbie expertly exploits the surreal tremolo effect indigenous to the mighty Rhodes brand of keyboard instrumentation and, especially if you experience the track via headphones, you’ll be treated to its unique mind-swirling quality up close and personal.

It had been a good while since I’d given this album a focused listen and I was surprised to find that I’d forgotten how intricate and clever the presentation is. The engineering involved was flawless, making it sound like it could have been recorded last week rather than almost four decades ago and that helps the material remain fresh and invigorating. Herbie was one of the first to take funk from being something folks were toying around with in jazz circles out of curiosity and make it the centerpiece of a new language rising into the vernacular from the streets and systematically infiltrating the sacred halls of the institution known as jazz. This landmark recording planted a big, fluttering funk flag on the shores of American music and, even though many of the natives didn’t know what to make of it, Hancock and his cohorts’ definitive act paved the way for a flood of eager settlers to move right in and set up shop.
Five stars and I barely feel guilty about it.

This was the first Herbie Hancock album I owned, quite early in my introduction to Jazz, and it convinced me that jazz could just about incorporate any genre it liked into its broad territory of influence.

Of course, the willingness of jazz musicians to borrow and blend is hardly unique to this album, but 'Head Hunters' is one of the moments where I think the balance between two genres is achieved to such a high standard that it becomes one of those albums that eventually convinces purists from either side to come across and take a proper look.

The album kicks off with the immortal riff from 'Chameleon' (very, very satisfying to play on bass) and an incredible drum beat, Hancock creeping in with synth before eventually layering the song with a host of instruments. Soon enough it comes to a short refrain, looking back to the intro before launching into a series of solos, shared between Hancock's keyboards. It isn't until toward the last half of the song when the more conventional (compared to his other rigs) sound of the Rhodes appears for a long solo followed by one from Maupin on the sax.

'Watermelon Man,' the Hancock composition rearranged over ten years after he first recorded it, opens with yelps from voice and a variety of wind instruments (including a beer bottle) before breaking into a smoother funk than heard on the opener, with a very cruisy lead up to the solos. 'Sly' is a more insistent track, with a tight rhythm combination where Mason shines again, furious on the bass drum, hats and snare, while Maupin provides a frantic solo and Hancock chugs away in the background with his deep squeaks of clavinet (a dominant sound on the album.)

The closing song is the fulfillment of the gentler hints that appear in the three preceding tracks. 'Vein Melter' is space-jazz, slow and measured. It meanders, heavy on atmosphere, and acts as the perfect come-down after such an assault heard earlier on the record.

'Head Hunters' should surprise anyone unfamiliar with it, but pleasantly. It's a landmark work, setting a standard for others to follow in fusing jazz and funk together.
'Head Hunters' was the first album in which Herbie Hancock attempted to weld his jazz and neo-classical sensibilities to his sophisticated take on the popular funk beats of the time. It's not a bad album and has some great moments, but it's not as developed as his future funk/fusion masterpieces; 'Thrust' and 'Man Child'. Side one opens with the all too familiar fat funky synth bass line of 'Chameleon'. Back in the day older jazz musicians hated this bass line and it's synthetic sound, their venomous foam-at-the-mouth descriptions of this tune made for many a humorous break-time during jazz band rehearsals. Anyway, the synth-bass line plows ahead and is topped by an out of tune over reverbed lead-synth that sputters away until finally there is a break and Paul Jackson enters with a real bass and the band finally has a chance to cut loose and jam. This section features an excellent Fender Rhodes solo backed by Herbie and Bennie Maupin's loungey neo-classical orchestrations on flute and string synthesizer, very nice. Side one closes with Hancock's great abstract Africanized and modernized take on his RnB classic, 'Watermelon Man'. Side two opens with 'Sly', which could have been a great high-energy abstract avant jazz-funk roof burner, but there are these, not one but two, rhythm clavinet parts that Hancock added that are way too loud and persistent and bury all the great poly-rhythms with this constant clavinet chatter that sounds like Stevie Wonder on meth with a bad case of the shakes. All is made up when side two closes with a classic Hancock futuristic loungey, achingly slow groove called 'Vein Melter'. This is one of the finest Hancock tunes I know of and bears some strong resemblances to the sound of his previous band, The Sextet. Producer David Rubinson, from the excellent Sextet - 'Crossings' album, and Herbie recreate some of 'Crossing's' beautiful textures with double-tracked woodwinds, Mellotron, Arp String Ensemble and laid back Fender Rhodes playing through a classic Echoplex, very very nice.

'Head Hunters' is a fairly good and innovative album in the world of funk-fusion, but it is a bit inconsistent and unrefined, if you are looking for the best Herbie has to offer in this genre check out the hyper-abstract syncopations of 'Thrust', or the ultra slick future lounge jazz of 'Man Child'.
Hunting Funk

Hancock by mid-1973 had completely dismissed his previous highly experimental band, with the exception of multi-brassist Bennie Maupin, and decided to strip things down and make a commercial move. However, this did not imply loosing the man’s outstanding creativity and ability, he just felt that his previous avant-jazz works weren’t understood and thought of connecting with a wider audience this time (similarly to what Davis had in mind in 1972).

How else to connect with the masses than with hyper funky and slightly improvisational music? Herbie is in charge of the whole keyboard set this time, demonstrating his great capability on the latest synths and on the funk keyboard, the clavinet, also the Rhodes is still to be found. Undoubtedly a big influence to fellow fusion keyboardists, Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea, who would start to incorporate synths and clavinet.

While the music captures the roots of the funk acts of the time, Head Hunters managed to become a landmark of funk-jazz, sounding fresh even today. However, this does not mean that this is Hancock’s finest hour on the funk-jazz realm, but it’s undeniable the footprint that this album has left. The man and his band (called The Headhunters) would later develop better and more exciting and complex funky compositions, to be heard on Thrust and Man-Child.

To start with, Hancock delivered ‘Chameleon’ which has one of the most addictive synth lines ever made, but that’s something you always get from Herbie, even in his jazz days he was groovy and catchy as the future Stevie Wonder. The composition features everything a funk band needs, tight and groovy rhythm section (percussion, bass and drums), catchy lines (courtesy of Bennie’s various brass instruments) and great musical interplay, each member communicates perfectly with each other. Only flaw would be that it's a tad bit long for its own good.

The band later does a remake of the classic jazz tune, ‘Watermelon Man’, this time it’s slicker and a bit more complex in its weird funky way. I’m not really fond of this version; it just doesn’t groove much for me and thus doesn’t suit the album’s mood, but it's not bad at all.

Next composition is ‘Sly’, obvious reference to famous funk band, Sly & the Family Stone. While it is an undeniably groovy tune full of clavinet and impressive Rhodes, the tune is pretty much loose and leaves a lot for improvisation and soloing, with highly active percussion and drums all through. Good but not that good.

Final track is ‘Vein Melter’, a far more spaced out composition full of floating keyboards, smooth electric piano, and airy saxes/flutes. It’s somewhat like an anticipation of the futuristic funky style of Thrust, but it also evokes past avant/psychedelic leanings from The Sextet.

There’s no doubt that we should give full credit to this album for initializing the funk-fusion movement, and with the addition of many incredible grooves in here, this is a very enjoyable album, although not entirely consistent to be considered a masterpiece. A classic nonetheless which should be listened by every music fan who is even slightly interested in funk.

Members reviews

As much as I enjoy Sextant and Crossings, I know right away many people would be put off by the avant garde leanings of those albums. Herbie Hancock came to a realization that many people had a hard time appreciating avant garde, so with Head Hunters, he assembled a new band (with Bennie Maupin from the old lineup) and adopted a more funky approach. "Chameleon" is that prime example, a rather catchy and funky piece that still leaves room for improvisations, but one the other hand avoiding the more "far out" stuff that turned people away from his past three albums. He does a drastic remake of "Watermelon Man". I am very familiar with the 1962 original, he transformed it so much you have to listen carefully for some familiar themes to creep in. The music flirts with African music, plus the song is updated to include clavinets and electric piano, while the original was piano and horn-dominated. "Sly" is obvious reference to Sly Stone, he was open about his love for Sly & the Family Stone, inspiring him to go a more funky direction here. It's a real intense piece of fusion that any fan of fusion will just be totally blown away! "Vein Melter" is the last cut and more calm, and in a way, harkens back to the Sextant and Crossings style, but not so out there as to scare off more mainstream listeners. It's strange that I just got me Headhunters, and I've been aware of that album for a very long time. Well, better late than never. This album was a big success and it's nice to see he didn't adopt an overly-commercial approach to do it. Yes, it's more accessible than his previous three albums, but that was done on purpose. The production also seems cleaner too. This is without a doubt a fusion classic, and while I might not be the biggest fusion fan out there, I know good fusion when I hear it, and this is one of them and completely essential!
Sextant was dazzling, make no mistake about it, but with Head Hunters Herbie goes for a change of approach, injecting horse doctors' doses of funk into the mix, scaling back the more abstract space rock-inspired passages radically, and getting a new backing lineup to really bring the sound of the album together. Particular props have to go to Paul Jackson's bass work - a fat, meaty bass sound being absolutely vital to any funk undertaking - as well as the completely off the wall percussion work of Bill Summers, who brings a truckload of different instruments to bear. But more or less every performer has their moment in the spotlight here - Bennie Maupin's flute performances are a particular treat - and of course Herbie's synths and keyboards are a constant presence. It's a bit of an abrupt gear shift after the Mwandishi albums, but it's an undeniably successful one.
Sean Trane
HH’s Mwandishi group not raising sufficient public interest to his eyes, Hancock tossed that project aside and disbanded the formation, keeping only Benny Maupin to from his next group The Head Hunters, which would quickly have a life out of its Hancock back-up group career. Built upon funky bassist Paul Jackson and drummer/percussionist Bill Summers and main drummer Harvey Mason, the group presents an incredibly rhythmic (and African) façade where only Maupin and Hancock are frontmen. Coming with his atrocious fake mask on his face, the artwork has lost the magic of Robert Springett’s incredibly beautiful illustrations for this album.

Opening on the now-famous almost 16-mins collectively-penned Chameleon track, the album announces its funk colour right from the first note, Jackson’s slapped bass line is setting an instant groove and the rest is history. I’m barely exaggerating here, the group settled into their groove and outside a few short escapades; the rest is just expanding, soloing and improvising on the groove. Whatever most people see in this track is grossly exaggerated or else I’m completely missing the point. Compared with his previous works, here Hancock does toy with synthesizers. To close up side A, the group gives a new work out to Hancock’s most beloved 60’s hit, Watermelon Man. A very different version of its older self, it’s probably the album’s most interesting track, one where Maupin shines from head to toe.

The flipside (this sides seems to be more inspired by Miles than the A-side) opens on a 10-minutes Sly Stone homage from Herbie, a great funky expansion where Herbie’s clavinet serves us a guitar-like sound in its groove, Hancock had not found a guitarist and decided to do without one but using that keyboard instead. The closing Vein Melter is anything but close to melting temperature, though: it’s close to cool jazz, strangely bringing us back almost to the 60’s.

By the time the 70’s half decade had passed, many had turned to jazz-funk (as opposed to the earlier jazz-rock) Hancock moving after Weather Report (who’d done so with Mysterious Traveller and Tale Spinin’, but once again Herbie would dare harder and further than either WR or Miles would. Although not being that much a fan of this album, I can only recommend it on pure commercial merits: it was a planet-wide success selling more than a million copies at the time (for jazz, that was phenomenally successful) and is among the top three jazz album saleswise today.

PS: ever notice that this album can be abbreviated to HH’s HH?

This album is totally visible landmark of not only jazz, but the whole popular disco music.

After few years of electronic avant-garde period Hancock found himself not in the point he had previously wanted to be. His Mwandishi sextet, yet very original, didn't gain so much popularity it deserved. There vere also some financial issue. Herbie turned into a rising jazz-funk music (he was also one of the pioneer in popularising this kind of music with r'n'b "Watermelon man" in '63).

The album starts with an absolute killer - legandary "Chameleon". The funky syntesizer bass line quickly became a great inspirations for many fusion bands all over the world. But the synth-work isn't the only interesting thing in this track. There is also a very clever use of saxophone by "one-man horn section" Bennie Maupin and untypical "broken" funky percussions. And long, long keyboard solos. In contrast to Blue Note and CTI jazz-funk records from this time you won't find easy-listening Fender solos on this album. Herbie goes hardcore with his incredible keys playing. Despite rhyhtm is ideal for disco, average listener won't find it easy to dance to it as well to listen to it! This over 15-minutes tracks consist also of beautiful part filled with extremely original bass playing by great Paul Jackson, cunning Fender solos by Hancock and beautiful synth textures.

"Watermelon Man" is amazing cover of Hancock's tune from '63. A slow jam reminds a kind of crazy, slow tribal trance-dance or ritual with lead played by whistling into glass bottles!

"Sly" is a tribute to Sly and his Family Stone, which had a tremendous influence on 70s black music. Yet there are no screams or guitar, the sharp intro reminds a funky-rock playing. Main part of the track is again a brilliant bass theme and energetic drums and conga playing that gives excelent layer for harsh Maupin sax solos and dynamic, fast Hancock's Fender solo.

The weakest point of the album is the last track. After an real musical orgy we have to travel back in time to something that sounds like 60s tune with keyboards and new arrangements. I'd listen to this album dozens of time and I still can't understand why this track is on this album.

Neverthelss - it's impossible to deny the value "Headhunters" and it's impact on world music. Jazz and jazz-funk lovers will... love it (especialy those who seek for something more difficult to listen to), any other music fans won't pass it indifferently.

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