From the bottle-blowing sounds that open "Watermelon Man" to the dripping synths of "Vein Melter," be prepared to enter a sultry land where jazz and funk get crazy together. Just follow the tracks that, though they were made 40 years ago, stay as fresh as ever.
I was in college when I first heard "Head Hunters," and I approached the record as I did any other new thing at the time -- I consumed it in excess and waited for the intervention. I never did tire of hearing it, and would force the album on every barbecue or party I found myself at, dramatically yanking out the chords of the host's iPod (probably playing "This Love" or some other carcinogenic radio hit of the time) and replacing it with my own music device, set to Hancock. After some deservedly nasty looks, "Head Hunters" would get underway. The music itself would receive few complaints, and kept the energy high. The only protests to be heard would come from my friend's bulldog that would bark in a fit of terror every time the tribal sounding intro for "Watermelon Man" would breach the speakers.
Why is this album so full of energy and innovation, one of the most influential of its kind? Hancock wanted to go in a new direction following 1972's "Sextant." He formed a pared-down band, the Headhunters, and departed from his established spaced-out sound to a more earthbound approach that incorporated African folk elements with jazz improvisations and funky grooves. While Side A has a couple of Hancock's most recognizable works, don't forget to listen to B-side, too, where "Sly," dedicated to and inspired by funk icon Sly Stone, barrels in with the intensity of a July sun. But then it's followed by a soft landing with the cooled down dreaminess of "Vein Melter."
When I think of summer in St. Louis, I think of picnics at the Whitaker Music Festival at the Botanical Gardens. As if the evening of free outdoor music wasn't lovely enough on my last visit to the Gardens, what did I hear on the speakers leading up to the show? It's the unmistakably funky bass line of "Chameleon." Oh yeah. Always a welcome sound, the stellar grooves and shuffling rhythms are befitting of the energy and mood that a steamy evening in the River City can bring. "Chameleon" is great on it's own; however, go for the whole package and listen to "Head Hunters" tonight. It will be hot enough for you.