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The Headhunters are an American jazz-funk fusion band, best known for their albums they recorded as a backing band of jazz keyboard player Herbie Hancock during the 1970s. Hancock's debut album with the group, Head Hunters, is one of the best-selling jazz/fusion records of all time.
Hancock originally assembled the band for his 1973 album Head Hunters. The Headhunters' new lineup and instrumentation, retaining only wind player Bennie Maupin from Hancock's previous sextet, reflected his new musical direction. Bassist Paul Jackson was the only other member who maintained a continuous presence in the lineup in subsequent recordings and concerts. On the original Head Hunters album the other band members were percussionist Bill Summers and drummer Harvey Mason. For the next Hancock album featuring Headhunters, 1974's Thrust, Mike Clark took over as drummer.
Both Mason and Clark contributed drums to Hancock's 1975's album Man-Child, which featured 18 musicians.
1975 also saw Headhunters first album without Hancock, Survival of the Fittest, featuring the hit "God Make Me Funky". This song was sampled by the Fugees, among many others, for their track "Ready or Not", and has been covered by Jamiroquai as a live track. While Hancock's Man-Child moved a bit towards more commercial sounds, Survival of the Fittest kept Headhunters focused to intense jazz-funk. Vocals were heard on two songs but there was still lots of experimental fusion on the album (the band's music is called "space-funk" on some re-issues of the album).
As the 1970s turned to the 1980s, Hancock drifted away from the band as he moved into his electro-oriented phase, and they ceased operation as a visible unit. The band reunited with Hancock for the 1998 album Return of the Headhunters.
Clark, Jackson and Summers have since continued recording and performing as the Headhunters, with varied incarnations, such as Victor Atkins or Robert Walter filling in for Hancock on keyboards, and utilizing Donald Harrison as often as possible. They released an album, Evolution Revolution, for Basin Street Records in 2003, and backed up the saxophonist Rebecca Barry on her 2005 album Rebecca Barry and the Headhunters. They toured again in 2008, with Jerry Z on keyboards and bassist T.M. Stevens, and in 2009 played gigs featuring Geri Allen on keyboards and Harrison on alto, with Richie Goods playing bass.
In 2010 the Headhunters signed with Indianapolis jazz label Owl Studios. They released Platinum, which featured many of the original members of the band with guest spots by Snoop Dogg, George Clinton, and Killah Priest, among others.
Musical style and influences
The Headhunters' music is a complex blend of many styles and genres, including jazz, funk, African and Afro-Caribbean music. The group is also notable for its pioneering use of electronic instruments and effects.
In the sleeve notes to Head Hunters, Hancock confirmed that track 3, "Sly", was named in tribute to Sly Stone, leader of Sly & the Family Stone. This band, along with James Brown, are one of the key influences from funk music. As in funk music, the band often built a groove around a bassline; Paul Jackson's deceptively simple licks are frequently the bedrock of Headhunters material, as much as Mike Clark and Harvey Mason's drumming ("Chameleon", the famous opening track of Head Hunters, provides a fine example of this, although in this case the main bassline is played by Hancock.) Also taken from funk music is the technique of building a complex groove by combining many small but carefully interlocking syncopated contributions.
While straightforward funk depends on a snappy, danceable backbeat from the drummer, Clark and Jackson's interplay danced in and around the groove motif, creating some complex rhythmic patterns. This is arguably best exemplified by the music on Thrust, particularly on the song "Actual Proof".
Early editions of the Headhunters were notable for the absence of a guitarist. All guitar-like parts were handled by Hancock on his first two albums with the group, with one exception: the "rhythm guitar" heard interacting with Hancock's synthesizer bass early in the track Chameleon is actually Jackson playing in the upper register of the bass guitar, as pointed out by Steven F. Pond in his book Head Hunters (2005). Electric guitars were first introduced when DeWayne "Blackbyrd" McKnight appeared on Survival of the Fittest.
Although the Headhunters' albums were often belittled as "pop" by purist jazz critics at the time, it is now widely accepted that they were significantly influenced by, and made a significant contribution to, the "serious jazz" canon. Their music featured extensive solo and group improvisation over chord progressions, just as in the jazz mainstream. Most of the overtly jazz-influenced material comes in the form of solos from Hancock and Bennie Maupin.
A strong connection to African music is evident, with the role of percussion hugely enhanced compared to mainstream jazz, and more extensive exploration of complex polyrhythms compared to most funk.
The Headhunters are also notable for the unusually wide range of instruments they use. Hancock used a myriad of keyboards, from the staple Fender Rhodes electric piano to the Hohner clavinet, as well as being an early adopter of synthesizers, particularly instruments from ARP. Maupin used bass, tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet and bass flute, and oddities such as the Saxello and Lyricon. Unusual choices like beer bottles and the Voice Bag also featured in their instrumentation.
The following members appeared on multiple Headhunters releases:
- Herbie Hancock: keyboards, electric pianos, clavinet, synthesizers
- Bennie Maupin: saxophones, saxello, clarinets, flutes, lyricon
- Paul Jackson: bass
- Mike Clark: drums
- Bill Summers: percussion
- DeWayne "Blackbyrd" McKnight: electric guitar
- Wah Wah Watson: electric guitar
|Title||Album details||Peak chart positions|
|Survival of the Fittest||
|Straight from the Gate||
|Return of the Headhunters!||
|"—" denotes releases that did not chart|
|On Top: Living on a Europe||