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Meet the Team: Herbie Hancock's Headhunters

by Thomas Michalski
April 14, 2017

It’s a simple truth that a piece of music’s commercial impact and its cultural importance are often two wildly divergent things. There are obvious exceptions to this rule; the oeuvres of the Beatles, Michael Jackson and Led Zeppelin can clearly be pointed to both as artistic touchstones and heavy-duty unit-movers, but for the most part, real music heads couldn’t really give less of a shit whether an album turns gold, where it landed on the charts or how much it earned for some fat cat execs (and vice versa; those eyeing the bottom line can seldom be bothered with “art”). But as a student of music history, sometimes what ends up on wax and what ends up on the balance sheet intertwine to paint a picture of a particular moment in time that would otherwise be woefully incomplete, as in the case of Herbie Hancock’s 1973 masterpiece Head Hunters, which was recognized by the RIAA as the first Platinum-selling jazz album and by the Library of Congress as an aesthetically vital work worthy of preservation. But while Hancock’s name may be on the cover, it’s far from a solo effort; in fact, it’s rather doubtful the album would have reached the heights it did had Herb not had four incredibly talented musicians backing him up.

Hancock was already a well-known name in jazz and pop by the time 1973 rolled around, both as a solo artist, with often recorded compositions like “Watermelon Man” and “Maiden Voyage” to his name, and as a member of Miles Davis’ backing band, which he departed from in 1968. Two years after that, Hancock embarked on a trilogy of albums that pushed his always inventive keyboard styles into even headier territory, comprising 1970’s Mwandishi, 1971’s Crossings and 1972’s Sextant, all of which, in Hancock’s own words, were rather focused on “exploring the upper atmosphere of music and the more ethereal kind of far-out spacey stuff”. The music he was making was creatively fulfilling, and was only furthering his reputation as an exceptional composer, but Hancock eventually desired a change of pace. Drawn toward an earthier, more direct sound, he solidified this new direction by drastically overhauling his backing band, assembling multi-instrumentalist Bennie Maupin, drummer Harvey Mason, percussionist Bill Summers and bassist Paul Jackson and dubbing them “the Headhunters”.

Maupin was the only holdover from the band behind Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant, and it’s readily understandable why Hancock would want to keep him around. Not only did they have a history, but Maupin had also graduated through Miles Davis’ group, contributing to one of his best remembered albums, Bitches Brew. Plus he was amazingly versatile, able to play a variety of styles on an incredible variety of instruments; he originally began on the clarinet, but quickly expanded to the flute, saxophone and just about anything with a reed in it. Beyond playing with Davis, Maupin could drop nearly every name in the genre; he had studied at the feet of Yusef Lateef, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane and went on to play with everyone from Chick Corea and Pharoah Sanders to Horace Silver and Freddie Hubbard. Their previous working relationship and similar backgrounds put Maupin and Hancock on the same wavelength, which explains why it seems as though they’re playing with one mind on Head Hunters, with Maupin’s horns twisting effortlessly around Herb’s electric piano and synthesizer. His presence also provided a crucial reference point for fans, something familiar in a sea of change.

Change, though, was something that drummer Harvey Mason was very comfortable with. One of the most recorded session men of all time, Mason felt at home playing just about anything, and was more than willing to do so if the pay was right, ending up on jingles, pop albums, religious recordings and everything in between (the year before he joined the Headhunters he was playing on Carole King’s Rhymes & Reasons). He wasn’t just any gun for hire though; he had taken up the drums at age 7, attended the prestigious Berklee School of Music, and later received a full scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music, where he studied under Vic Firth of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. On Head Hunters, Mason is an unflappable, precise time-keeper, providing a tight rhythmic foundation for the others to build on, but also provides plenty of sparkling syncopation, a performance the Guardian called a “tutorial in how to improvise while maintaining a groove”.

Adding even more rhythmic complexity was Bill Summers, who was featured on a variety of African and Latin American percussive instruments, in addition to a common beer bottle (he’s arguably the best beer bottle player in the world). His complex rhythms, and elsewhere his sense of restraint, reinforce the organic rawness that Hancock had envisioned for the album, which was as much sociopolitical as it was aesthetic, a celebration of the music’s African roots at a time when Black America was reconnecting with the indigenous culture that had been stolen away from them, exemplifying what writer Steve Pond called the album’s “musical expression of Black Nationalism”. Taking this exploration of traditional African sounds one step further, Summers also appears on the Hindewhu, an antiquated type of Central African flute which he had just begun experimenting with when Hancock recruited him. In the context of the Headhunters, Summers fills an integral gap, connecting the dots between Hancock and Maupin’s high-flying lines and Paul Jackson’s loping low end.

If Summers’ conjured ancient African influences, Jackson channeled the then modern sound of young Black America, creating a potent contrast of old and new. A rising star of the eclectic Bay Area funk scene (the same scene, incidentally, that gave rise to Sly Stone, who inspired Head Hunters third track, “Sly”) and musical prodigy who was accompanying the Oakland Symphony by the time he was 14, Jackson was a natural fit with Hancock, who held classical music in high esteem and had recently, through his friendship with Miles Davis, developed an avid interest in James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. Though his work on Head Hunters is exceptional, joining Mason, no stranger to R&B and funk himself, in creating the rock solid grooves that keep the album chugging along, he was ironically not responsible for the record’s most famous bass line, the simple yet irresistibly catchy (and endlessly sampled) basis of the album opener “Chameleon”, which was actually created by Hancock himself on an ARP Odyssey synthesizer.

The use of the synthesizer, and indeed of Jackson’s electric bass, rubbed many a traditional jazz fan the wrong way. For purists, the kind of jazz fusion Head Hunters helped pioneer was deeply troubling, a compromise that could only be motivated by avarice or a lack of imagination, but as usual, the purists didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. The albums signature blend of pop, jazz, funk, R&B and African folk music is not at all self-conscious or crassly calculated, it’s simply the result of five men making music without any restrictions, forging one sound out of their respective influences and styles. “Each of the other musicians made contributions from his own background…” observes Steven Pond, “The project, even considering Hancock’s leadership, bore the stamp of all the musicians and their past experiences – personal, cultural and musical.” The magic of Head Hunters is that it’s so many things at once: simple and ambitious, danceable and thought-provoking, ancient and futuristic and, as unlikely as it may seem, a blockbuster album that’s worth every penny it made.

1. http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015062435014;page=root;seq=96;view=2up;size=100;orient=0;num=84

2. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=98723278

3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2001/jun/29/artsfeatures.jazz

4. http://www.benniemaupin.com/pdf/Maupin_Bio.pdf

5. http://www.harveymason.com/biography/

6. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4554495

7. http://www.pauljacksonbass.com/bio.php

Thomas Michalski is a writer and radio host from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can keep up with his comings and goings over at http://www.voodooinspector.com/