|1. Chameleon - Bennie Maupin|
|2. Watermelon Man|
|4. Vein Melter|
The opening track 'Chameleon' is the definition of 70's funk. For us foreigners this is as pure a sound of Americana as Louis Armstrong's 'Hot Five', Nelson Riddle's arrangements for Frank Sinatra or even Bob Dylan's early acoustic albums. The soundtrack of 70's urban America. With Hancock's extraordinary playing and improvised electronic sounds, I can almost feel those bell-bottoms flapping in the breeze.
'Watermelon Man' is an exercise in pure rhythm with some great ensemble work by all involved. Ironically the track 'Sly' is the least Sly Stone influenced of all the tracks on the album and the most conventionaly jazz-orientated. There's even a stronger sense of improvisation on 'Sly' and as a result I think it's the most intense track of the four. Its stops and starts lead Hancock to a seemingly unrelentless climax before it melts back into the original groove.
On 'Vein Melter' you can hear the influence of Miles Davis, like a 70's interpretation of 'Kind Of Blue'.
Headhunters is the sound of an artist who wanted to speak more directly to his audience and as a consequence helped to create a sound that is now so well-known in our culture, it borders on cliche. High praise indeed!
"Chameleon", the opening track, was immediately recognised as a major contribution to both the jazz canon and the dance canon. No riff in jazz had ever sounded as deep and thrusting as this. In spite of the widespread popularity of "Chameleon" and the legion of admirers who claim it's the greatest jazz funk track ever, the real masterpiece is "Watermelon Man".
It's mildly ironic that the best piece on the album should be one that Hancock had composed early in his career (it first appears on his first album as leader, Takin' Off, Blue Note, 1962). The 1973 version is virtually unrecognisable from the original - it retains only the blues-based progression, and Paul Jackson's detached bass figures wink distantly at Butch Warren's original blues bass line. The composition is constructed cautiously over a light ostinato pipe figure that builds up into a theme dominated by Hancock's Fender Rhodes, alternating between a staccato emphasis on the off-beat and a call-and-response dialogue between Hancock and Bennie Maupin that hovers in eerie suspension over the bass and drums.
Most significantly, the album introduces humour as a central element in the argument: jazz-funk could only be taken seriously as a genre when it mocked itself. Head Hunters drew simultaneously on Herbie Hancock's decade of playing with the jazz greats, the wah-wah sound of Jimi Hendrix's legacy, and the feverish dance sound of Sly Stone and George Clinton. And it did this with the supreme paradoxical humour of simultaneous detachment and involvement that only a master like Hancock could pull off.
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