When it comes to the esoteric genre of jazz-fusion, it really doesn’t get much better than Herbie Hancock’s classic, Head Hunters. Jazz-fusion, for the uninitiated, is largely a cross-breed of traditional jazz arrangements and structures with elements of funk and progressive rock mixed in for good measure. Generally, it tends to go in two different directions: the solo and texture-heavy sounds of Miles Davis’s own seminal album, Bitches Brew and the lighter, more pleasant sounds of pretty much anything Bob James has ever done (Bob James, being most notable for his contribution to the jazz-fusion genre and hip-hop, with songs like Take Me To The Marti Gras and Nautilus).
So with that being said, where does that put Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters? Right smack in the middle. It’s not quite as out there as the previously mentioned Bitches Brew (which is far from easy listening jazz, I assure you). But nor is it straightforward, easy listening music either. It masterfully combines funk, jazz, and some light progressive rock elements into a nearly prefect listening experience.
Take Chameleon for example: the album’s 15 minute epic centerpiece. Starting things off with a groovy bass line and drums to set the mood, the instruments begin layering on top of this rock-solid foundation and help get your head nodding. While there is some traditional jazz soloing for good mix, it never feels like, “Oh, so now it’s time for so-and-so time to shine.” kind of soloing. It feels much more natural and flowing. And just when it feels like you’ve made sense of the structure of the song, it completely changes on you. It picks up the pace with more frantic drums and keys and menacing bass and atmosphere. Finally from there, it comes back full circle, leaving you back where you started but making you feel like you’ve just gone some amazing aural journey. The whole song, from start to finish, from composition to musicianship, is sheer perfection.
But what about the rest of the album? Watermelon Man is a funky interpretation of an old jazz classic written by none other than Herbie Hancock himself. It brings a loose and easy groove to table, punctuated by some smart and sparse sax and keyboard hits that are all sandwiched between what I can only guess is a pan flute (it sounds weird, but it works). On the B-side, you have Sly: a shuffle-y, jazz-funk number which features some great breakdowns and tempo shifts, and also some of the best keyboard and sax playing on the whole album. Finally wrapping things up, is Vein Melter. Vein Melter feels most akin to a typical jazz track but with the same textures and sounds that you’ve become accustomed to throughout the album. It’s a slow, woozy comedown to the musical assault on the senses that finishes the album beautifully.
Truthfully, I cannot recommend this album enough. It’s the kind of album that you listen to and you can hear what kind of game-changer it must have been for music when it came out in 1973. So, just like Miles Davis’s own Kind of Blue is the jazz album for people who don’t know a thing about jazz, this is the jazz-fusion album for people who don’t know anything about fusion.
Final rating: 5 out of 5.
2) Watermelon Man
4) Vein Melter