Album Review: Head Hunters
Updated: Jul 14, 2022
Herbie Hancock is a legend in the genre of jazz, with much of his notable work being his role as the pianist in the Miles Davis Quintet. He contributed to classic albums such as In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, and went on to form his own sextet.
After experimenting with a spacey sound with albums like Sextant, Hancock wanted to pursue a 'lighter' sound, and so he created a new ensemble called the Headhunters. Together they made Head Hunters, Hancock's 1973 classic which many cite as the album which brought jazz-funk into the mainstream, incorporating elements of R&B to give it a more accessible sound. It's one of the most accessible and catchy albums in the genre, and from the very start, it hooks you into its funky, chaotic sound.
The opening track, 'Chameleon', begins with an iconic bass-synth line which hooks me into the album. It's such a catchy, satisfying bassline which is built on with quick layers of hi-hats and steady drums. A groovy saxophone melody repeats, acting almost as the song's chorus. Then the entire track breaks down, making way for an even faster tempo as the groovy bass kicks in and an intricate keyboard solo starts, improvised over the building synths and clamour of drums. Every change in the song seems so precise and deliberate. Even in moments of improvisation, such as in the long middle section of the song, the band members sound so synchronised with one another. It comes together into this legendary, cohesive whole, where bass, keyboard, drums, and all other elements involved have their moment to shine.
The following song, 'Watermelon Man', is isn't half as long as the track before it, but leaves as much of an impact. The beginning of the song has to be my favourite moment on the album. It starts with Bill Summers blowing on some beer bottles, creating this strange melody which is layered over with flutes, followed by bass guitar and drums. The slow build up then reaches its climax as the punchy keyboard kicks in, accompanied by the groovy saxophone which continues through the song. Everything feels so intricate and planned, be it the slow and satisfying buildup, the back and forth from the explosive keyboard to the laid back saxophone, or the hypnotising beer bottle melody which comes back into the song at the end to bring it full circle. Head Hunters embraces the improvisational nature of jazz, but controls it in the environment of a coordinated funk album, fusing the two sounds together into so that each song sounds simultaneously natural and also meticulously arranged.
'Sly' is the most chaotic song on the album. As the title implies, the song pays tribute to Sly and the Family Stone, a band Herbie Hancock was heavily influenced by when creating the sound of Head Hunters. It begins with a spacey, funk-jazz sound with a much slower pace than the tracks before it. Then these explosive saxophone and keyboard notes hit, bridging the gap between the slow and fast sections of the song as the tempo picks up and the lively bass builds alongside the groovy keyboard solo and subtle guitar in the background. Then those same saxophone notes hit again, and the quick tempo speeds up even more. In the chaotic middle of the track, an unpredictable saxophone solo dominates, with a storm of hi-hats chattering in the background. The song grows more and more intense until it comes to a sudden stop, with a moment of silence before the bass returns and a keyboard solo takes over the song. This is probably the least funky song on the album, where the quick percussion and manic solos seen in most jazz dominate over the funky basslines which were emphasised more heavily in 'Chameleon' and 'Watermelon Man'. It's a song of controlled chaos, in which the pace continues to speed up like a bomb about to detonate, creating this cacophony of sound which entrances the listener while keeping them guessing as to where its sound will go next.
After such an abrasive and unpredictable song, the album enters a period of calm with the closer, 'Vein Melter.' It's a far more tranquil song, with soothing saxophone and soft keyboard melodies repeating throughout the track. It's a far more atmospheric sound, akin to the spacier songs Hancock was known for in his albums prior to Head Hunters. The subtle bass, steady percussion and keyboard swell into a slow but powerful climax, giving the album one last impactful moment before slowly fading to its finish.
What makes 'Vein Melter' all the more impactful is its purpose: it was a track dedicated to a friend of Herbie's who died from heroin abuse. Thus, the structure of the track mimics the rush of injecting oneself with heroin, sonically conveyed via the swelling synths which rise between moments of calm before fading suddenly, as the high comes and goes. The title, 'Vein Melter', refers to the needle being injected into the vein, leading to the heroin high.
Head Hunters is my favourite jazz album. It may not be the most experimental in the genre, but it is without a doubt an essential jazz album, and one which brought jazz-funk into the mainstream. It strikes a balance between the catchy, danceable rhythms of a funk record with the unpredictability and layering of a quality jazz album. The basslines are unforgettable, the drums used so effectively to build momentum as each song builds to its climax. The keyboard and saxophone are the definite highlights, along with the strange and creative percussion which gives Head Hunters a unique charm. It has moments of patience and buildup such as the beginning of 'Watermelon Man', contrasted by periods of manic improvisation like the middle of 'Chameleon' or 'Sly'. Each song has purpose and meaning, conveyed through the structure and buildup of the instrumentation, such as the climax of 'Vein Melter' being a metaphor for the rush from heroin. The album comes together into a cohesive whole, where each band member has room to breathe and prove their worth. In only four songs, Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters made one of the most recognisable and iconic albums in jazz-funk, and created one of the best albums of all time.
Fav Tracks: Chameleon, Watermelon Man, Sly, Vein Melter