When it was released in 1973, the first Headhunters recording changed the shape of jazz fusion to come. Welding electric funk and steel-plated instrumental improvisation in ways that recalled both Miles Davis and Sly Stone, Headhunters, with its familiar, oft-sampled riff “Chameleon,” set new standards for crossover sales.
Miles had started the trend with Bitches Brew back in 1969, but that album and such subsequent releases as Live at the Fillmore and Live Evil, despite their often accessible beats, remained too far out to attract many rockers. Guitarist John McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Orchestra had tapped into the rock audience, as would Chick Corea and his Return to Forever band – which debuted, like the Headhunters, in '73 – but neither generated the sales that Headhunters would eventually rack up. Though it remains the jazz-funk genre's artistic high point, Headhunters' overwhelming commercial success poisoned the fusion movement as record companies became convinced that they could make a killing with jazz just as they had with rock & roll. Today's fusion stars, from George Duke and Stan Clarke to Dave Koz and Kenny G, are part of that legacy.
Beginning with his 1962 Blue Note release Takin' Off, Herbie Hancock's recorded efforts reflected a more accessible style of postmodern bop than had the Miles Davis quintet of the '60s, of which Hancock was an integral member. Yet they were hardly designed to appeal to the pop audience. When he switched to the Warner Bros. label in 1969, Hancock took a funky turn with the popular Fat Albert Rotunda. Just prior to the '73 Headhunters date, Hancock recorded under the name Mwandishi, turning out moody modal electronic pieces that included Headhunters reedman Benny Maupin, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, trombonist Julian Priester, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Harvey Mason. Featuring the same musicians, his first Columbia album in 1972, Sextant, was a buzzing, spark-filled extension of the electric modal Mwandishi sound, with grooves still far too long or weird for commercial-radio play.
Headhunters changed that. It borrowed grooves from James Brown and Sly Stone, and combined them with layered percussion and jazz improvisation. Hancock humanized the still-infant electronic technology with a playfulness that spoke to the libido. Percussionist Bill Summers' beer-bottle toots and Maupin's psycho sax solos reached further into the soul. Though the LP cuts, with titles such as “Sly” and “Vein Melter,” were still too extended or too wired for commercial play, an acceptable-length single was edited out of “Chameleon,” and it spent 11 weeks on the Billboard Top 100 list. The album eventually sold even better, far surpassing the half-million copies of Bitches Brew that had sold over the previous three years.
As a band, the Headhunters lasted only a few years (the word Headhunters doesn't even appear on the group's second and third albums; instead, they were released under Hancock's name). We remember seeing them on a double bill with Miles Davis at Chicago's Crown Aerie Theater in 1975, a date that Miles failed to make. The Headhunters, now with squawkingly wild guitarist Blackbird McKnight (dressed in a brilliant yellow-feathered canary suit for the occasion), played to the crowd's pop sensibilities, signaling the end of the jazz-fusion world as we knew it. The group went on to put out a couple of albums minus Hancock, but without his then-considerable star power, those discs went nowhere.
Now, the Headhunters are back. The new album, the first on the infant Verve subsidiary Hancock Records, has many of the same attractions as its 25-year-old predecessor. But Return of the Headhunters' attempt at contemporary relevancy, with a lyric and vocals from former Brand New Heavies member N'dea Davenport, a rap cameo from the Pharcyde's Trevant Hardson and the inclusion of hip-hop guitarist JK (who co-produced the album), falls short. The long solos that gave the original such character have been sacrificed, although Hancock, who plays on only four of the cuts (Billy Childs fills in on most of the others, with help elsewhere from Patrice Rushen and Darrel Smith), has brief shining moments, as does saxophonist Maupin. The riffs are catchy, complementing the same '70s percussive mix of Summers' noisemakers and Mike Clark's galloping drums, all brushed out over the mighty bass of Paul Jackson. Childs, as those who've seen him lately with funk-poetry band Prophecy can attest, often outplays Herbie on Fender Rhodes.
Maupin's “Premonition,” along with Childs' “6/8-7/8” and “Kwanza,” transcend the disc's otherwise retro '70s feel. But there's nothing here that signals a unique hybrid between improvisational music and hip-hop, the way Headhunters bred something new out of jazz and funk in 1973. Still, the disc makes a statement, evident in the lyrics to its title song: that today's funk and hip-hop movements have much to learn from fusion's pioneers. Adding harmonic and percussive depth to otherwise rhythmically flat, musically shallow tunes doesn't alienate listeners. It turns them on.