The name Headhunters brings back some good memories for fans of pure, unadulterated fusion. The band collaborated with the great Herbie Hancock to take jazz/rock/funk fusion to the next level. The Headhunters found a way to create long form music that merged electrified jazz with influences from Africa, the Caribbean and pop. The cuts were often long numbers that featured sweeping solos and a jam band sensibility. To top it off, the Headhunters managed to be a band that was accessible to the masses. “Chameleon,” one of the Headhunters biggest hits, found its way on the set lists of marching bands and funk bands across the country in the 1970s.
Record sales also confirmed the band’s status. The Headhunters’ self-titled 1973 debut featuring Hancock became the first jazz-fusion album to achieve platinum status. To celebrate that landmark achievement, founding members Mike Clark and Bill Summers return with a new tribe of Headhunters and a record of new material called Platinum. The current band includes luminaries from the music world like saxophonist Donald Harrison, who steps into the shoes once worn by Bennie Maupin (Maupin is one of the guest artists on the project). Musical guests include Snoop Dogg, George Clinton and Patrice Rushen.
The presence of Snoop and fellow rappers Killah Priest, Jaecyn Bayne and Private Pile reflects the respect many in the hip hop community have for the Headhunters’ music. DJ’s sampled classic Headhunter tunes such as “God Make Me Funky,” and Platinum gives the MC’s a chance to sit in with the band. The strongest of those collaborations comes toward the middle of the album on the percussion-driven “Apple Tree,” where Bayne’s verbal flow takes a cue from the Clark’s aggressive drumming. The lyrics take the listener on a trip through the perils faced by people living in the inner city. The hook and the cut’s recurring theme, “the devil don’t live in no apple tree, save me,” drives home the point that the devil is a spirit of action who must be confronted actively by good.
The Headhunters’ claim to fame came by creating magisterial instrumental cuts such as their funk recasting of Hancock’s classic “Watermelon Man.” Platinum truly finds its voice when the wordsmiths step away from the spotlight, and the beam is cast on a host of world-class musicians. “Salamander,” with its funky horns and playful keyboards, is an original homage to “Chameleon.” Platinum also includes a rap version of “Salamander” entitled “Skizness.” The on the one attitude heard in “Paging Mr. Wesley” has that James Brown feel. The title pays tribute to Fred Wesley, the trombonist who played with Brown and Bootsy Collins.
“M Trane” is the track that comes closet to veering into straight ahead jazz territory. Patrice Rushen showcases her creativity on the ivories while Harrison, trumpeter Derrick Gardner and Rob Dixon lovingly channel the spirits of Coltrane, Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderly. This track is a personal favorite of mine. The band seeks to call down the spirits with the Afro-Caribbean up-tempo cut “Head Huntin.” This is another percussion driven tune. However, there is also some amazing keyboard and horn work on this number.
There are some names in music that carry meaning. And the Headhunters have such a moniker. It stands for a group with the skills to merge jazz, rock and funk in a way that gives each genre it’s proper due. Bringing rap into the mix proves that the sound that carried so much relevance in the 1970s can still make heads nod today. Recommended.
By Howard Dukes