The most remarkable thing about the Headhunters reunion is that it didn't happen sooner. After all, the '70s have been back for, what, a couple of decades now?
Yet it was only this past summer that the funk-jazz pioneers, led by keyboard giant Herbie Hancock, blew the dust from their spears and set off to remind everyone just who put the old in old school (Herbie is now pushing 60). When they finally got back together, the results were electrifying—literally. It was during their debut reunion performance at the Tibetan Freedom Fest in DC last June that lightning struck RFK Stadium, ending the concert.
Herbie Hancock and the
Meany Hall, University of Washington Saturday, September 19
The Headhunters first emerged out of the deep malaise that overtook the jazz world of the early '70s. The intimacy of acoustic jazz was being shouted down by the blare and spectacle of amplified rock and soul. The whole feeling of swing was sounding pass鮠Herbie had come to fame as the pianist for Miles Davis' brilliant mid-'60s quintet, creating some of the darkest, most complex and forward-thinking music of the day. He also recorded several acclaimed albums for Blue Note. But as Miles veered off into the multilayered, electronic squall of Bitches Brew, Herbie decided to go for something a lot simpler and danceable. In 1973 he helped to launch jazz fusion on its somewhat dubious trajectory with his new band, the Headhunters. Their debut record, with the hit "Chameleon," achieved a level of pop success that was unheard of since . . . well, since the days when jazz was pop music.
The band faded away a few records later, and fusion devolved into smooth jazz. But like many of the critically derided, "sell-out" recordings of 1970s jazz stars, the Headhunters' sound was rediscovered by the acid-jazz innovators of the early '90s, who brought back the clanky Fender Rhodes, the wah-wah pedal, and long, exploratory soloing over funky beats.
A reunion "had been attempted umpteen times," says percussionist Bill Summers, speaking from his home in New Orleans. "There were deals on the table that didn't go down for one reason or another." It wasn't until Herbie started up his own Verve imprint, Hancock Records, that Return of the Headhunters (that's the name of their new CD) became reality this past summer.
Hancock has always been a technophile. He appeared on the cover of InfoWorld, a computer trade journal, back in the early '80s for his work with the newfangled Macintosh. Return is marked by some novel keyboard sonics that sound both retro and state-of-the-art. But though Herbie is touring with the band, he doesn't seem to consider himself a full-fledged Headhunter. He is listed as a "special guest" on the CD and plays on only half the cuts. The keyboard duties are alternately handled by Billy Childs, who is more than up to the job. Verve producer/guitarist/wonderboy JK, who just released a pop-funk disk of his own, gives the session his trademark thin, dry sound.
The compositions were a group effort. "The approach we took was 'OK, no one come in with just a tune finished," says percussionist Summers. The results reflect the method, with a live, spontaneous feeling. Drummer Mike Clark is awhirl with riffs, creating rhythmic patterns that spin away from a simple backbeat. Paul Jackson is a bass monstrosity, laying down outrageously deep and intricate grooves. These two, who are best of friends off-stage, are not "tight" in the usual sense, but they somehow end up complementing each other perfectly, with Summers shaking in a variety of African flavors to the rhythmic mix. Saxophonist Bennie Maupin, the only other band member (besides Herbie) to have a high-profile solo career in the post-Headhunter years, turns in his usual restrained performance, making his few contributions count.
"People need to groove," says Summers, explaining why the Headhunters can claim a popularity that more "serious" jazz doesn't muster. The band's crossover pitch was boosted this summer when it toured as the opening act for the Dave Matthews Band. "They had a great deal of respect for us, and they showed it," Summers recalls.
The reunited Headhunters appear to be hitting that sweet spot where nostalgia and renewal meet. Summers says he's encountered "a lot of father-son combos" at the concerts. After years of young hip-hoppers sampling their material, Summers believes the Headhunters are benefiting from a new interest in musicians, not machines: "'Live'" he notes, "is new all over again."