Herbie Hancock‘s most commercially successful group, the Headhunters, formed in the wake of the dissolution of Mwandishi, his best and most experimental band. While the music he made on the albums Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant was brilliant and progressive, expanding the boundaries of jazz, rock, funk and electronic music, the records didn’t sell, so he made some adjustments. Trumpeter Eddie Henderson, trombonist Julian Priester, synth genius Patrick Gleeson, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Hart were all out; the only member of Mwandishi to join the Headhunters was saxophonist/clarinet player Bennie Maupin. He and Hancock were joined in the new group by bassist Paul Jackson, percussionist Bill Summers, and drummer Harvey Mason (replaced after the self-titled debut album by Mike Clark).

In the liner notes to a reissue of Head Hunters, Hancock says:

“I began to feel that I had been spending so much time exploring the upper atmosphere of music and the more ethereal kind of far-out spacey stuff. Now there was this need to take some more of the earth and to feel a little more tethered; a connection to the earth….I was beginning to feel that we (the sextet) were playing this heavy kind of music, and I was tired of everything being heavy. I wanted to play something lighter.”

The music he wound up making was based on deep funk grooves, rather than the trancelike exploration of Mwandishi. Some of it is as complex as anything he’d ever done, and there are some fantastic solos, but there’s always an underlying crowd-pleasing aspect that, frankly, hadn’t been there since his early ’60s hard bop dates on Blue Note. It’s no wonder that Headhunters tracks have been sampled repeatedly in subsequent decades, on tracks by Digital Underground, LL Cool J, Nas, Schoolly D, Tupac, and many more.

Phil Freeman

Watch a full performance by the band, from German TV in 1974:

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