Jazz & Blues Edge: Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters

Credit: BootLoverPhotography

by Ms. Ann



Chameleon                         15:41

Watermelon Man            6:29

Sly                                          10:18

Vein Melter                        9:10


Today, I am wanting something to just chill out, groove to, get into the beat with, move my body and soul to, get “funky” and I am drawn to an album that was recorded in a week and released in October 1973. 

For me, this album represents authentic Black Power, it is an outpouring of Herbie Hancock’s authentic self-creativity at this point in time.  A time when fusion had been a thing, a way jazz had gone for 10 years before.  It was a time of many important events contributing to a blending of ideas for Hancock. He had played keys for six years with Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet, Miles having made an about-face turn to electric music, to avant-garde jazz.  In Los Angeles, in 1972, there was a Black Woodstock, a sold out concert ($1 each ticket) of over 110,000 in attendance benefitting Watts with every marquee artist from iconic Memphis label Stax performing. At this event Rev Jesse Jackson said “Today you will hear Gospel, and Rhythm & Blues, and Jazz, all those are just labels, we know that music is music, we know that all of our people have a soul, our experience determines the texture, the taste and the sound of our soul.”  

For me, it is this upheaval of avant-garde and the donning of funk, the wanting of that beat, the one, and the groove that made kids want to free their mind and dance, that is all poured into “Chameleon.”  The bass line is a synthesizer, the riff is on an electric bass (played by Paul Jackson), Hancock is on clavinet,  Bennie Maupin plays soprano and tenor saxophone, saxello, bass clarinet, alto flute, Harvey Mason (drums) plays a straight-eighth funk feel.

Then there’s Summers’ famous solo on beer bottles, pennywhistle, shekere, handclaps, and falsetto ad-libs at the beginning of “Watermelon Man.”  I love the segway of this primal opening to the riff piano, adding drums, and we now are feeling very funky.  But hold my beer, because there is an abrupt break.  A very jazzy piano with a sexy drifty saxophone on top of the fat bass breaking in taking us to a light groovy Duke Ellington jazz tune.  Last verse, we recap our primal sounds over this, highlighting the funk feel and fade.  Sweet.

The third tune is a tribute to Sly Stone, as the opening statement screams that funky tune.  About two minutes in though, there is a shift back to all the sensibilities of jazz. I love Maupin’s solo on this tune. It influenced my own playing at the time.  Maupin will riff on blues scales and develop his sound flowing into an avant –gardism in the soundscape.  The Jazz influence keeps pulling at the funk.  It is a great blending.   Hancock’s solo on his Rhodes is kick ass.

The final tune is Vein Melter, a cool down, a tune written for a friend of Hancock’s who died of a heroin overdose.  Herina Ayot, freelance writer, NYC  states “Jazz, at its very core, is sex. The one begs the other. Harmonic tension, rhythmic tension, and even melodic tension, followed by release matches the feel of the moment, passion and unrest bent up inside a person before the ultimate and sudden exhale.”  For me, I feel as if I just had a wild romp in the bed, banged and licked, kissed and my bottom spanked, worked into that climax of release and now I am laying with my lover, one arm touching him, the other sipping my wine. Breathing, remembering, taking it all in. Mason’s snare rolls every measure, Hancock’s smile grins on his Rhodes.  I’m smiling back.

Herbie Hancock was criticized at the time for making a commercial album that sold to lots of folks.  He stated that he just wanted to write something light, instead of this heavy jazz stuff he had done. 

And tonight Herbie, this is perfect. I want a release from all that heavy chaos of the politics of my time, to something I can bob my head to. Thank you. You’re the BEST.