October 12, 1973 – Herbie Hancock: Head Hunters is released.

October 12, 1973 – Herbie Hancock: Head Hunters is released.
# Allmusic 5/5 stars
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
# Billboard (see original review below)

Head Hunters is the twelfth studio album by Herbie Hancock, released October 13, 1973, on Columbia Records in the United States. Recording sessions for the album took place during September 1973 at Wally Heider Studios and Different Fur Trading Co. in San Francisco, California. Head Hunters is a key release in Hancock’s career and a defining moment in the genre of jazz fusion. In 2003, the album was ranked number 498 in the book version of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In 2007, the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry, which collects “culturally, historically or aesthetically important” sound recordings from the 20th century.

Head Hunters followed a series of experimental albums by Hancock’s sextet: Mwandishi (1970), Crossings (1971), and Sextant (1972), released at a time when Hancock was looking for a new direction in which to take his music:

“I began to feel that I had been spending so much time exploring the upper atmosphere of music and the more ethereal kind of far-out spacey stuff. Now there was this need to take some more of the earth and to feel a little more tethered; a connection to the earth….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 sleeve notes: 1997 CD reissue)

For the new album, Hancock assembled a new band, The Headhunters, of whom only Bennie Maupin had been a sextet member. Hancock handled all synthesizer parts himself (having previously shared these duties with Patrick Gleeson) and he decided against the use of guitar altogether, favouring instead the clavinet, one of the defining sounds on the album. The new band featured a tight rhythm and blues-oriented rhythm section composed of Paul Jackson (bass) and Harvey Mason (drums), and the album has a relaxed, funky groove that gave the album an appeal to a far wider audience. Perhaps the defining moment of the jazz-fusion movement (or perhaps even the spearhead of the Jazz-funk style of the fusion genre), the album made jazz listeners out of rhythm and blues fans, and vice versa. The album mixes funk rhythms, like the busy high hats in 16th notes on the opening track “Chameleon”, with the jazz AABA form and extended soloing.

The HeadHunters band (with Mike Clark replacing Harvey Mason) worked with Hancock on a number of other albums, including Thrust (1974), Man-Child (1975), Flood (recorded live in Japan, 1975). Subsequent albums Secrets (1976) and Sunlight (1977), had widely diverging personnel. The Headhunters, with Hancock featured as a guest soloist, produced a couple of fine funk albums, Survival of the Fittest (1975) and Straight from the Gate (1978), the first of which was produced by Hancock and featured the big hit “God Make me Funky”.

The image on the album cover is based on an African mask that is associated with the Baoulé tribe from Côte d’Ivoire. They have various types of masks known as Goli that have to be considered a family. Their presence is called upon in times of danger, during epidemics or at funeral ceremonies. The image also resembles the tape head demagnetizer used on reel-to-reel audio tape recording equipment at the time of this recording.

Herbie Hancock has dissolved his old sextet and abandoned the extensive synthesizer overdubbing which marred his previous solo LPs. Headhunters, tight and concise, could be called soul-jazz (soul in a Sly, Seventies sense), but there’s more to it than that. “Watermelon Man,” Hancock’s Sixties funk classic, gets a new arrangement that reveals the changes. It begins with an African-style flute-and-whistle ensemble. Electric piano, bass, drums, saxophone and percussion fade up from under the flutes with a stretched, but by no means spaced, reinterpretation of the tune’s original line. The track then develops compositionally, with little improvisation, until the African flutes return. The longer pieces are just as direct. Hancock’s masterful use of the ARP Odyssey creates a string section under his cooking electric piano solo on “Chameleon,” while saxophonist Bennie Maupin, the only holdover from Hancock’s previous group, finally gets enough solo space to demonstrate his considerable originality. Headhunters is Hancock’s best album in several years and should give Stevie Wonder and Sly fans something to think about, since it uses their innovations as a basic premise from which to expand into coherent and captivating new ideas.
– Bob Palmer, Rolling Stone, 3/28/74.

Pianist Hancock seems to have come back down to earth after several albums of floating around in electronic space. One gets the impression that he has been shown the light by new producer Dave Rubinson that music can be fun as well as funky and still be art. Hancock and his four associates are heard here in a program that gets back to simple swinging, but that allows for adventurous melody lines and chord progressions. And lots of down home soul. Dig the bass figure on “Chamelon” and Hancock’s electronic support. Side two is much deeper, so as not to kill off all those space fans who enjoyed his previous efforts.
– Billboard, 1973.

Side A
“Chameleon” (Herbie Hancock/Paul Jackson/Harvey Mason/Bennie Maupin) – 15:41
“Watermelon Man” (Hancock) – 6:29

Side B
“Sly” (Hancock) – 10:15
“Vein Melter” (Hancock) – 9:09


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