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Timeless Affairs: Head Hunters

Welcome to Timeless Affairs, the corner within Steppin' Into Tomorrow, where we shine a spotlight on essential albums that have shaped our culture (and lives in some cases). We lovingly revisit, explore and zoom in on these gems in their full length. Digging out stories and fun facts from the making of the masterpieces that have built the foundation of the music today and continue to shape the future.

Tijmen de Nooy Photography

Last month, we did another instalment of the Come Into Knowledge sessions at Feed, with our very own Leroy Rey & "Herbie-head" Baraka G, diving into the pianist, composer and musical chameleon Herbie Hancock and his immense catalog. From the Blue Note days in the 60’s, to simultaneously being a sideman in Miles’ second great quintet, to his Afro-Futuristic approach under the name Mwandishi to fully embracing funk, later disco, and later hip hop and… you name it, he's probably done it. I guess it's safe to say he's undoubtedly one of the most successfully versatile musicians and composers from the past half-century. Therefore, this month's Timeless Affairs celebrates his genre-bending twelfth studio album 'Head Hunters'.

My intention was to make a funk record, but the jazz influence kept pulling it. I didn’t know it was going to be a combination of jazz and funk at the time that we started off.” – Herbie Hancock speaking about ‘Head Hunters’ to The New York Times

At the time of its release on Columbia Records in 1973, Herbie Hancock's 'Head Hunters' was the best-selling jazz album of all times (currently on the second spot, right after Miles Davis' Kind of Blue). This album marked a pivotal moment in Herbie's career, his transition to becoming a vanguard in jazz fusion, rooting deeply into funk, soul and R&B and devoting himself to the groove. Highly influential on not only jazz, but also funk, rock, soul, and hip-hop. Embarking on a musical adventure that unquestionably reflects jazz’s inherent sense of freedom.

“The thing that keeps jazz alive, even if it’s under the radar, is that it is so free and so open to not only lend its influence to other genres, but to borrow and be influenced by other genres. That’s the way it breathes.” - Herbie Hancock

On the album, Hancock is featured with his ‘Mwandishi’ saxophonist Bennie Maupin on the reeds, and a whole new rhythm section - electric bassist Paul Jackson (and former jazz organist from Oakland, who sadly passed away last year), afro-centric percussionist Bill Summers from New Orleans and star of the L.A. studio-scene, drummer Harvey Mason. This formation became known as the Headhunters and played on most of Herbie's seminal albums of the '70s (although Harvey Mason was replaced by Mike Clark on the following albums). The formation of this new quintet was inspired by Herbie's desire to focus more on music with a new aesthetic he termed “of the earth” and less on abstraction. They played low profile performances around Los Angeles and the Bay Area during the summer of 1973 at first, soon afterward going into the studio to record the now-classic Head Hunters.

I was beginning to feel that we (the sextet) were playing this heavy kind of music, and I was tired of everything being heavy. I wanted to play something lighter.” Hancock’s liner notes

Drawing heavily from Sly and the Family Stone, the Godfather of Soul James Brown, and Curtis Mayfield, he developed gritty rhythms, over which he soloed long improvisations on electric synthesizers. Herbie's definitely one of the reasons for this instrument being brought to the forefront in the world of jazz.

Herbie Hancock & the Headhunters

The masterpiece record consists of 4 tracks, opening with a 15-minute, notoriously known 'Chameleon' set to a funk beat with a characteristic bass line. Still a highlight of his concert tour sets to this day, and one of the most widely recognized jazz standards, performed by many notable artists, including Maceo Parker, Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich, Azymuth and many others. Second track, 'Watermelon Man' opens with the characteristic sound of beer bottle blows, performed by the percussionist Bill Summers right in the first layers of the tune. The original tune, which was done in collaboration with Donald Byrd, was released on Herbie's 1962 debut album 'Takin Off', which was later covered by Mongo Santamaria in a Latin dance bop. However, the Head Hunters version is the most notoriously known and it was apparently Harvey Mason's idea to re-record the song for this album. Next up, “Sly,” is a nod to the lead of Sly and the Family Stone that inspired Herbie very much in the transformation of his sound (according to his own words, "I started thinking about Sly Stone and how much loved his music and how funky “Thank You For Letting Me Be Mice Elf” is. I was hearing that song over and over and over again. Then I had this mental image of me playing in Sly’s band playing something funky like that."), featuring a beautiful solo by Herbie on Fender Rhodes electric piano. The album closes with the dreamy “Vein Melter”.

The beautiful artwork that you can see on the cover of the "Head Hunters" album is by one of the most fascinating artists of the psychedelic era, Victor Moscoso, who gained popularity in the '60s with his poster designs. He also became a leading artist for the underground comics and also designed album covers for The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, Steve Miller Band, or Manfred Mann.

Head Hunters now enjoys platinum status. But even more importantly than that, the record sounds as fresh and vital as it did nearly two decades ago. Songs from the record were sampled on tracks by 2Pac, Rapsody, Nas, George Michael, Madonna & counting. There's also this 2015 interpretation of the album by Jesse Fischer & Sly5thAve.

Have a listen & while you're at it, here's a recording of the lecture on Mr. Watermelon Man himself in case you'd also like to dive deeper down these rabbit holes.

Come Into Knowledge is currently on a seasonal break, and we're already looking forward to be back again once the days are a bit cooler & shorter. Stay tuned & enjoy your summer!


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