A Little Sunday Music: Herbie Hancock, ‘Chameleon,’ from “Headhunters,” 1973
I still consider myself on hiatus; but here is some Sunday music to remember me by. I was looking through Neo-Griot’s offerings today and came across this reappraisal of Herbie Hancock’s groundbreaking album, Headhunters.
A pragmatist who spent his earliest years more dedicated to the study of science than syncopation, Herbie Hancock’s electronic immersion was likely the byproduct of his ear and technical interests colliding — a phenomenon that may not have been as easily achieved at the start of his career as it was by the mid-seventies, with the popularity of synthesizers, psychotropics, soul power, and eastern religion. Fat Albert Rotunda (1969) and Mwandishi (1971), Hancock’s most important attempts to combine the soul brother aesthetic and rock rebellions of the time, were unmistakable harbingers of The Headhunters’ arrival. Hancock’s vision was heavily influenced by the catalogs of Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, and James Brown – a rhythm driven sound built in complete deference to the bass and drum. The resulting compositions are ripe with a corpulent warmth and infectious grooves that stand in stark contrast to much of the jazz that had been lauded up to that point; music that lent itself to smoking squares and taking shots, but did less to speak to the younger cats who were unafraid to talk back to the man or lean when they walked. The rise and fall of popular styles within the genre can even be documented according to the advent and eventual assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr; jazz and gospel were for picket signs and peaceful resistance what funk and soul became for those more interested in pushing flashy cars and picking up guns. By their second release, Thrust, the band had taken the rhythms that defined funk and melded them with the frenetic unpredictability and improvisational timing characteristic of jazz drumming. This was combined with heavy use of synthesizers and found sounds to create something peers on both sides of the aisle had not necessarily dared to execute to any degree of success before.
That synthesizer use was most evident on “Chameleon,” the first track on Headhunters; that insistent bass line you hear is actually from Hancock’s Arp Odyssey synthesizer, and not from an actual bass guitar.
And that Eastern religion impact: Hancock is, as I am, a Nichiren Buddhist who chants nam myoho renge kyo. So is Bennie Maupin. The story goes that Hancock was trying to shakubuku or convert his manager at the time. Both knew that a jazz album had never become a crossover hit, had grossed over a million copies, or was certified gold at that time. Hancock made a deal with him that if he could make Headhunters such a hit with his 12th album that the manager would have to convert to Buddhism. The manager converted to Buddhism as a result of Hancock creating what became “a defining moment in the genre of jazz fusion.” Tony Green related in Jazz Times:
The first certified gold jazz album in history, this disc’s release represented year one for a generation of fusionoid rhythm junkies. Why? Not just because its signature tune, “Chameleon,” eventually made its way into the repertoire of every bar band in the country. Hancock grasped the simple-is-complex/every-instrument-a-rhythm-instrument concept that is crucial to any jam’s glide factor. Even at this point, long after the familiar six note “Chameleon” bass riff has lapsed into cliché, Headhunters still outstrips the vast majority of the stuff that came after (right up until the present), thanks to Hancock’s tart, minimalist phrasing.
Bar bands? Please. This ain’t The Doobie Brothers. Hundreds of jazz combos, rock bands, perhaps. Fans and lovers of the funk. Soul singers and musicians. But hip-hop artists like Tupac, Digital Underground, and Nas, have been influenced by, been sampling and mainlining this music for four decades, even though jazz purists accused Hancock, who had been known for his experimental jazz compositions, his collaborations with Miles Davis, and his forays into classical music, of selling out. As it proved, Hancock goes everywhere with his music, including recently, some of the works of Joni Mitchell.
And that iconic album cover?
The image on the album cover is based on an African mask that is associated with the Baoulé tribe from Côte d’Ivoire. They have various types of masks known as Goli that have to be considered a family. Their presence is called upon in times of danger, during epidemics or at funeral ceremonies. The image also resembles the tape head demagnetizer used on reel-to-reel audio tape recording equipment at the time of this recording.
Hancock borrowed heavily not only from electronics and the new jazz fusion and funk, but from the sounds from African instruments.
So this was the beginning of it all, like moving from the analog world into the digital world. Reminisce and enjoy.
- Live Jazz: Joni’s Jazz with Herbie Hancock and an All-Star Ensemble at the Hollywood Bowl (irom.wordpress.com)
- Herbie Hancock to promote jazz as UN ambassador (canada.com)
- Carlos Santana Criticizes ‘Racist’ Grammy Decision (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)
- Jazz great Herbie Hancock a UN culture ambassador (seattletimes.nwsource.com)