Head Hunters: The Making of Jazz’s First Platinum Album
“Watching the way Head Hunters sold just pissed me off even more,” Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography. Davis was pissed that his former protégé had created jazz’s first platinum album, merging the smooth glide of early-’70s soul, the sexual friction of funk, jazz chops, and a lot of futuristic keyboards. Meanwhile, Davis’ own attempts to reach young black audiences in the early ’70s had evaporated in a puff of toxic black smoke.
Davis was talking about records like On the Corner, records that shook the listener by the scruff of the neck. Herbie Hancock’s 1973 Head Hunters was a concerted effort to score a hit. He had spent the early ’70s pursuing a vision of electric jazz abstraction that rivaled his former mentor’s. It made for amazing music but didn’t pay the bills.
Head Hunters was a massive hit with the type of person who didn’t buy experimental jazz or synthesizer records. Like Stevie Wonder, Hancock snuck modernist ideas into the pop charts through the Trojan horse of soul and funk. Head Hunters became the flash point around which many people kvetched about how pop, or marketing, or some combination of the two, was ruining jazz. Meanwhile, Hancock sold a boatload of records.
So yeah, there’s definitely a book to be written about this record, but Steven F. Pond’s Head Hunters isn’t it. Pond, an assistant professor of music at Cornell University, is afflicted by the usual problems academics have when trying to write about popular music: flat writing, overexplanation of concepts familiar to anyone born in the last 50 years, lots of scare quotes.
In a section titled “Laying Down a Funk Groove,” Ford offers up the following mathematical formula for the funk: “Rather, the bass acts as a focus within an interlocked group of instruments, which we can conceive of as a matrix, acting as a fixed rhythmic group.” Not that we have to get all George Clinton mystical about it—funk, after all, is composed of notes just like every other genre of music—but can funk truly be understood as simply the notated charts for James Brown’s “Make It Funky”? (Or the “‘Make It Funky’ groove matrix,” according to Ford.) This is the way most of the book reads, and it’s a drag.
To his credit, Ford’s research is certainly thorough, consulting a wealth of articles and interviewing most of the major players, including some particularly good insights from reeds player Bernie Maupin. But Ford’s dryness of tone, while positively thrilling in the context of textbooks, is dusty, deathly dull. With tongue completely dislodged from cheek, he writes toward the end: “The unintended effect of such a rhetorical move is clear: its ultimate result is the reinforcement of an academic point of view that limits the understanding of jazz in its richest context.” Well, duh.