Herbie Hancock's Headhunters (Columbia, 1973) remains one of the seminal works of the jazz fusion era. The group's heavy emphasis on rhythm not only separated it from its guitar-oriented peers of the era, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the middle-period Return to Forever, but also from Weather Report: grooves became increasingly more prominent as that band evolved, but never to the depth of Hancock and company's all-encompassing funk.
That solid foundation is more than enough distinction for the first Headhunters work in eleven years. This reconfigured personnel includes drummer Mike Clark, who replaced Harvey Mason from the original lineup beginning with Thrust (Columbia, 1974), while percussionist Bill Summers functions now as then, a central figure of the ensemble.
Saxophonist Donald Harrison also joins in to add an element of traditional jazz on "Kongo Square" among others, thereby reaffirming the continuity of the Headhunters roots. Yet those sounds and other attendant atmospherics, added throughout a cut such as "Rockin' At The Mole House," mainly via Stephen Gordon's piano, clavinet and Fender Rhodes, are interwoven with Reggie Washington's pliant bass lines. It is a tribute to JC Santalis' mixing and masteringnot to mention the co-production by dual bandleaders Clark and Summersthat all the various elements receive their proper audio prominence (especially as the sonics reflect the deceptively colorful artwork of Ashlin Parker inside and out of the CD-sleeve).
The fairly quick progression of the eight cuts also nurtures the combined effect of entrancing and invigorating sensations that pervades the likes of "HH 75;" at a second shy of six minutes duration, this cut is roughly the average track length here within an overall playing time of forty-four some minutes. Along the way, Headhunters circa 2022 demonstrate a laudable command of pacing: following in quick succession the mood piece of the latter number, the band bounces along through "6/8 7/6" on an elastic foundation of syncopation before unfurling more elongated lines on "Vaspurahan." There Jerry Z's organ injects an r&b feel into the music that is further nurtured by Harrison's horn. And the juxtaposition of that track with "Actual Proof" considerably heightens the contrasts within this album: originally composed by Hancock for a film, this tune is also a prominent inclusion as one of the four cuts on the followup to the groundbreaking LP that is the source of style reintroduced with such dashing panache on Speakers In The House.
The seven minutes of the closing track, "Stop Watch" (another of many plays on words here including the album title itself) is the logical and fitting conclusion for the momentum that builds prior to its commencement. The pronounced Cubano-Latin swing and sway is positively infectious in its breezy air and may well compel not only repeated playings of the disc in very quick succession but perhaps also even some inclusions on more than a few Best of the Year lists.
Kongo Square; Rockin At The Mole House; HH 75; Over The Bar; Vaspurakan; Stoop; Actual Proof; Stop Watch.
Donald Harrison: alto saxophone;
Stephen Gordon: piano, keyboards, Clavinet, Fender Rhodes;
Reggie Washington: bass;
Mike Clark drums
Bill Summers percussion, keyboards, vocals;
Scott Roberts: drum programming (1-3);
Fode Sissoko: kora (1);
Jerry Z: organ (5).
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