Jazz isn’t always the easiest genre to love, which is probably why it holds such a fascination for so many people. The rhythms are often unpredictable, not easily consumable and tend toward a level of complexity that often requires a good deal of effort on the part of its audience. From the improvised angularities of Ornette Coleman and Peter Brotzmann to the liquid grooves of “Kind of Blue”-era Miles Davis to the jazz guitar populism of George Benson, the genre houses an amazingly disparate range of sounds and textures. And there’s really no correct way to appreciate it—some people point to the inherent intricacies of its construction, while others just sit back and enjoy its rhythmic fluidity.
A pioneer of the post-bop sound, Herbie Hancock found himself rubbing elbows with artists such as Miles Davis, Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard, creating music that spoke to jazz’s innate resourcefulness and its ability to command both towering emotional upheavals and intimate revelations. Throughout his career, he sought to bridge the populist nature of mainstream music with the insular aspects of jazz’s interior monologues. And with his work with Blue Note in the ’60s (in addition to the time he spent in the company of Warner Brothers and Columbia Records in the following decade) allowing him access to deeper collaborative experiences, his voice and rhythmic instincts gave him the ability to capture even the smallest ripple in an ocean of influence.
Hancock was born in Chicago in 1940 to Winnie Belle, a secretary, and Edward Hancock, a meat inspector, who named him after singer Herb Jeffries. From a young age, he was surrounded by music and began his musical studies when he was 7. He was considered something of a prodigy and performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when he was only 11. Although he never formally studied with a jazz teacher as a child, his ear for its labyrinthine structures became apparent quickly.
Once he heard jazz pianist Chris Anderson play in 1960, however, his dedication to the genre rose to somewhere in the exosphere. He begged Anderson to take him on as a student. He continued his studies at Grinnell University but moved to Chicago and began working alongside Coleman Hawkins and Donald Byrd. Byrd was also spending time at the Manhattan School of Music in New York and suggested that Hancock study with acclaimed composer Vittorio Giannini, which he did for a short time. He quickly began amassing a strident following for his piano playing and signed with Blue Note Records in 1962. The label released his debut record, “Takin’ Off,” later that same year.
Along with its canonical track, “Watermelon Man,” the record caught the attention of legendary musician Miles Davis, and an invitation was officially offered to Hancock to join Davis’ new iteration of the Miles Davis Quintet. The profound internal effect of his playing beside artists such as bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and a number of saxophonists—including Wayne Shorter, George Coleman and Sam Rivers—was that he finally discovered his own distinct voice as a pianist. Over the next few years, Hancock released a number of records, both with Davis and on his own, forging his own iconic jazz history with post-bop masterpieces such as “Maiden Voyage” and “Empyrean Isles.”
Toward the end of the ’60s, Davis began incorporating aspects of pop and rock music into his compositions, and Hancock would often double on electric keyboards when the need arose. He took to these new instruments quickly, accelerating his own musical shift in the process. He was dismissed from Davis’ band under the pretext of returning late from a honeymoon in Brazil, but Hancock was already seeing the possibilities in changing the focus of his work. He left Blue Note and signed with Warner Brothers in 1969. The prior year, he had formed his owns sextet and was already making way for a new line of musical thought.
When 1973 rolled around, he found himself signed to Columbia Records and was already gaining acclaim for having released “Sextant” in March of that year. But he wasn’t done yet—in October, he shared “Head Hunters,” a futurist electronic jazz album that feels more like a funk record. He gathered multi-reedist Bennie Maupin, bassist Paul Jackson, percussionist Bill Summers and drummer Harvey Mason as his backing band, whom he referred to as The Headhunters. Recorded at Wally Heider Studios and Different Fur Trading Co. in San Francisco, it marked a revolution for the jazz genre, a period of redefining what it could be and how musicians could approach its toothy angles.
At just over 40 minutes in four songs, the record is a sprawling, beautiful mass of influences and unfiltered funk instinct. Hancock did away entirely with the guitars and instead focused on the clavinet, which came to characterize the entire recording. Working from a taut rhythm and blues framework, the band eased into these groove-filled sounds with little effort, mixing and adapting various tones and textures to fit their needs. The opening track, “Chameleon,” employs a distinctive bass line and funky beat that has become a standard of the genre, with its two-chord vamp serving as a perfect setup to explore the craters and fissures of the band’s ARP Odyssey-fueled creativities.
A reworked version of “Watermelon Man” appears, with its distinctive beer bottle whistle and synthesizer adaptations keeping it far removed from its original form. “Sly,” a colossal jazz funk ode to Sly Stone, and closer “Vein Melter” share a reckless disregard for convention and expectations, which could be said of the album in general. “Head Hunters” was a stylistic shift for Hancock, but it still maintains his inventive use of jazz structures and their accompanying improvisational attitudes. His use of jazz-funk-rock fusion and asymmetrical arrangements would find no equal after the record’s release. A masterstroke of adaptation and groove-addled musical perspectives, it was the sound jazz so desperately needed, and its rippling echoes can still be felt today.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.