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Herbie Hancock - The Herbie Hancock Group: Head Hunters CD (album) cover


Herbie Hancock


Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.90 | 222 ratings

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5 stars In many ways I equate Herbie Hancock with the legendary Bob Dylan as far as being an enormous influence on the evolution of modern music. Dylan courageously followed his personal muse wherever she led without question or resistance, oftentimes to the consternation of his legion of followers and, in the process, forced what seemed to be conflicting genres to not only cohabitate but to compliment each other. In the early 70s Herbie realized that the burgeoning phenomenon known as funk (at that time budding in both the rock and the R&B territories) wasn't just a flash-in-the-pan craze and that, if handled properly, could be brought into the realm of 20th century jazz. Both artists suffered much critical grief from conservative traditionalists for their bold experimentations involving what were considered sacred cows yet their quests for creative fulfillment overrode any fears of exile from popular acceptance and now, in perspective, they are rightly heralded as pioneers who not only broke down barriers but opened up new territories for musicians the world over to migrate into.

In the case of this, the debut album from Hancock's "Headhunters" group, it is rightly considered to be one of (if not THE) vanguard recordings that gave birth to funk/rock jazz fusion. Despite having worked with some of the greatest jazz players in history during the sixties Herbie began to feel stymied musically and wanted to wade into uncharted waters to see what kind of ripples he could instigate. He put together a five-piece ensemble of like-minded explorers and set out to carve out a rebellious niche in the institution of progressive music. On October 13, 1973 this album hit the record store racks and, as they say, the rest is history. It appealed to fans of a wide variety of styles and, in its own humble way, made jazz music in general more palatable for millions who had always considered it to be too high-brow and, therefore, repelling because of its elitism. Not intending to be condescending in any manner, this was music even commoners could relate to.

Starting off with "Chameleon," Hancock's ultra funky synthesizer bass line efficiently reels you into the boat as the rest of the band joins in one at a time before the song's playful melody arrives and solidifies the deal. Herbie steps up into the spotlight first with an adventurous synth ride but, as wild as it is, he never allows it to run amok and overshadow the imminent groove. After Paul Jackson's bass and Harvey Mason's drums alter the landscape a bit Hancock smoothes things out and delivers a cool Rhodes piano solo. The tune is very structured so it's not simply a jam session but a well-arranged piece of exquisite jazz. "Watermelon Man" (a number Herbie composed and published back in '62) follows and it's a fine example of letting a song build up from humble beginnings (percussionist Bill Summers imitating primitive African pipes by blowing into an empty beer bottle) to eventually walk upright in its melodic fullness. One is struck by the group's ability to achieve subtlety without sacrificing the essential momentum generated by the solid rhythm track laid down by Jackson and Mason. The tune gracefully exits as it entered.

"Sly," (a tribute to Mr. Stone and his family) is next and while it's more ethereal in nature it never veers off the beaten path so much as to become inaccessible to the jazz neophyte. Strong dynamics lead to the underrated Bennie Maupin's hot soprano saxophone lead that streaks atop fast-paced drums, clavinet and congas. Hancock's penetrating electric piano then enters the fray with great enthusiasm yet I would encourage the listener to pay special attention to what Harvey is doing on his trap set beneath it all. His superb drumming motivates and encourages the whole number as it escalates to a furious pitch. They end with "Vein Melter" wherein a single bass drum beat initiates a mysterious atmosphere that grows to be inhabited by floating soprano sax, delicate Rhodes piano and airy synthesizer lines. Herbie expertly exploits the surreal tremolo effect indigenous to the mighty Rhodes brand of keyboard instrumentation and, especially if you experience the track via headphones, you'll be treated to its unique mind-swirling quality up close and personal.

It had been a good while since I'd given this album a focused listen and I was surprised to find that I'd forgotten how intricate and clever the presentation is. The engineering involved was flawless, making it sound like it could have been recorded last week rather than almost four decades ago and that helps the material remain fresh and invigorating. Herbie was one of the first to take funk from being something folks were toying around with in jazz circles out of curiosity and make it the centerpiece of a new language rising into the vernacular from the streets and systematically infiltrating the sacred halls of the institution known as jazz. This landmark recording planted a big, fluttering funk flag on the shores of American music and, even though many of the natives didn't know what to make of it, Hancock and his cohorts' definitive act paved the way for a flood of eager settlers to move right in and set up shop.

Chicapah | 5/5 |


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