The scene: My front room (lots of LPs, lots of cushions)
Dramatis personae: Mr & Mrs 1537, to say nothing of the cat.
The action begins with a tall, elegant gentleman tapping his toes to a funkalicious beat whilst reading some improving literature – this continues for 15 minutes. Then it stops and the next song starts, within seconds ..
Mrs 1537: Oh God, it’s that awful pygmy music again!!
Friends, that is the scene every time I play Herbie Hancock Head Hunters and has been since I picked it up sometime in 1999. Okay so I’ve toned the language down, but you get the picture. The ‘awful pygmy music’ in question is the opening 1:47 of second track, ‘Watermelon Man’ where percussionist Bill Summers simulates the music of Zairian pygmies by blowing into a beer bottle rhythmically and sort of chirping a bit. I confess I can relate to where Mrs 1537 is coming from here, but in the spirit of all marital arguments I have argued myself into the position where I now have to pretend it’s the best bit of the whole LP, if not the best bit of jazz and I have to positively greet its reoccurrence after five minutes with great rejoicing and whoops of pure joy. Am I a bad person? But, that aside this is the least impressive track on Head Hunters for me, you can spot the tunes hard bop genesis, it has the same sound but slowed down, with additional African percussion.
Pygmies aside, my favourite track here has shifted from the obvious strutting, funky charms of the opener ‘Chameleon’, which has a great, great groove, but never really gets to go anywhere for me* to side 2 opener ‘Sly’, named of course for Sly Stone.
Just a brief history pause here folks, Herbie Hancock was the keys player for Miles Davis 2nd Great Quintet which arguably cut one of the most mind-bending and game-changing LPs in music, never mind just jazz**, In A Silent Way. Hancock took no part in the Bitches Brew band but was back in train for 1972’s On The Corner, arguably one of the most confrontational, far-ahead of its time and outright difficult LPs ever made**. Head Hunters was released almost a year to the day afterwards in 1973 and ironically has a lot more of Bitches Brew in it than it has On The Corner.
Miles Davis in his autobiography^ attributed the major changes in his music around this time to the influence of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone – both of whom he was introduced to during his one year marriage to Betty Davis. So coming around again, you can really hear Sly Stone’s influence in Head Hunters. Ironically the track that bears his name is probably the most jazz track on the album. The funkiness of the intro is never allowed to settle down and expand, before we’re off into mellower, then frenetic sections. In fact the band really hit the frantic button later on, Bennie Maupin’s sax squonking and wheeling regardless above the beat, before lapsing back into the laid-back funk opening right at the end. The overall effect is somewhat akin to watching a classic Blaxploitation film squeezed into 10:16.
The last track, ‘Vein Melter’ has a definite echo of ‘In A Silent Way’ about it. It’s a gentle, subtle come down on what’s gone before it. Hancock plays so delicately over the top of the slight stop-start bass, drums and percussion here, it does sound like melting. It’s a track I’ve neglected a bit really and one that definitely merits some more time being spent on it.
Forgetting individual tracks the whole LP has a really good sound to it, the band are, as you’d expect absolutely top-notch and Hancock’s playing in particular is brilliant, as is his choice of instruments, the bass line of ‘Chameleon’ being played on an ARP synthesizer for example as well as liberal sprinklings of the Wurlitzer electric piano and the Hohner clavinet, both of which I’m a real sucker for.
I really like Head Hunters, pygmies notwithstanding, but for all the great playing and the fun on display it sits in the ‘really good’ category and not the ‘mind-shatteringly brilliant’ category, I’m not huge on jazz-funk and for all the groove and strut on show here, there’s not the depth of feeling I really crave and that the very best jazz can deliver.
*I only found out that there was a 2 minute 7″ single version of this today. I would have thought it was some job editing a 15:42 minute track down to 2:51 and I was ready to be astounded, but basically all they did was turn off the tape after 2:51 – just before it starts to get good.
**A hell of an LP that I’m nowhere near good enough to write about it yet.
^MIles (1989) Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe: Great book by the way.