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Flashback: Herbie Hancock Scores a Jazz-Funk Smash With ‘Head Hunters’

Keyboardist combined “the jungle, the intellectual, and the sex” on what would become the first platinum album in jazz

In 1973, Herbie Hancock found himself at a crossroads. For a couple years, the keyboardist had been leading a band called Mwandishi — named after a Swahili word meaning “writer” — that played sprawling electro-acoustic jazz with an emphasis on trippy textures and unfettered improvisation. “I think of Mwandishi as an R&D band — research and development,” Hancock wrote in his 2015 autobiography, Possibilities. “It was all about discovery, uncovery, exploration, the unknown, looking for the unseen, listening for the unheard.”

He loved the band but grew frustrated with its open-ended approach. “There were times we shared so much empathy and connection onstage that it really did feel spiritual,” he wrote. “But when Mwandishi was off — when we didn’t connect — the experience wasn’t pleasant, and what we were playing just sounded like noise, even to us.”

Inspired by Mwandishi’s bassist, Buster Williams, Hancock had recently begun practicing Nichiren Buddhism. While he chanted, he focused on the question of where he should take his music next.

“I spent hours at my Gohonzon” — the scroll that Nichiren Buddhists look at while chanting — “seeking an answer to this question and trying to keep my mind open for some kind of direction. And then, one day as I was chanting, I heard it. I want to thank you . . . falettinme . . . be mice elf . . . agin.”

What was cycling through his head was Sly and the Family Stone’s 1969 funk landmark of the same name.

“[S]uddenly I saw an image of me sitting with Sly Stone’s band, playing this funky music with him. And I loved it!” Hancock continued.” But then the image changed, and it was my band playing that funky stuff, and Sly Stone was playing with me — and that felt strange and uncomfortable. That upset me, because my discomfort felt like an expression of jazz snobbery, where funk was somehow lower on the food chain. …

“I decided to ask myself a few simple questions: Was there anything wrong with funky music? No. Was it somehow worse to play funk with my own band than with someone else’s? No. Then why was I feeling dismissive of the idea? I had certainly been listening to a lot of funk music, including Sly Stone. And funk was related to jazz, and it was related to the black experience as a whole. I had to face my own prejudice — or as Buddhist practice says, face the negativity of my fundamental darkness — and defeat it. And that’s the moment I decided to start a funk band.”

He promptly disbanded Mwandishi and formed a new band, retaining only reedist Bennie Maupin, a fellow funk and soul aficionado, and recruiting drummer Harvey Mason, percussionist Bill Summers, and bassist Paul Jackson. As soon as the group started jamming — working on a new piece that would eventually be called “Chameleon,” along with a new arrangement of Hancock’s 1962 hit “Watermelon Man,” inspired by African Pygmy music —  Hancock knew they were on to something: “a new kind of band: a jazz-funk fusion band.”

“If Mwandishi had worked with an intergalactic palette, this new band was working with an earthy one,” he wrote.

Testing out the material in front of audiences confirmed Hancock’s sense that he’d found his new direction. “We played in dance clubs and more intimate venues, for all kinds of crowds, and everybody just flipped out!” he wrote. “People were dancing, laughing, and having fun, just completely letting loose as we played. It was a party, and people loved the groove.”

The band recorded the songs, a brilliantly realized blend of jazz exploration and funk thrust, and Hancock used his chanting sessions to reflect on a name for the record.

“I wanted something primitive and earthy but with an intellectual component — a smart title that would get people thinking,” he wrote. ” [Mwandishi albums] Crossings and Sextant both incorporated African imagery on their covers, and I definitely wanted the jungle in the title. And — oh, yes — it wouldn’t be bad if the title had a sexual meaning, too. This was the ’70s, after all, and we were a band of young guys. This was a lot to ask for a title, but as I was chanting, it suddenly hit me: Head Hunters. As soon as that phrase popped into my mind, I started laughing. It was the perfect title, with the perfect triple entendre — the jungle, the intellectual and the sex.”

Released in October 1973, Head Hunters would go on to become the first platinum-selling album in jazz history. The band — with drummer Mike Clark in place of Harvey Mason — went on tour, and they were a huge hit on the road, even co-billing with Santana at an arena show. Above, you can watch them play an epic version of “Chameleon” in Bremen, Germany, in November 1974.

The album propelled Hancock out of the jazz niche, and set the stage for later triumphs like the hip-hop–informed, Grammy-winning 1983 hit “Rockit.” It had all started in front of the Gohonzon.

“When I’d first started practicing Buddhism, I had spent hours upon hours chanting to save Mwandishi, unaware that I was shackling myself trying to maintain my personal status quo,” Hancock wrote. “But the minute I opened up my heart and mind and soul to going in whatever direction I was led, Head Hunters happened. There was a beautiful life lesson to be learned in that: the power of letting go.”