Read: Steven Pond’s Head Hunters Book

 

Published
recently by University
of Michigan Press,
Head
Hunters: The Making of Jazz’s First Platinum Album does more than give the bestselling 1973 album from Herbie Hancock a
reappraisal – it challenges the way critics and the public frequently view the
intersection of jazz and commercialism.

 

By Steve Pick

When histories of jazz are written, fusion gets short
shrift. Oh, Miles Davis gets acknowledged for being the first to mix jazz
elements with rock instrumentation and volume, and maybe Weather Report and
Herbie Hancock get mentioned for selling a million records. But for the most
part, the way things were in the ‘70s gets shuffled to the side, as if there
was nothing more interesting than a rearguard action by some acoustic
traditionalists waiting for Wynton Marsalis to come along and pick up the jazz
tradition in the ‘80s. Or, alternatively, the ‘70s avant-garde players carried
their own flame in opposition to the commercial fusion players until they had
to fight their own mostly losing battle against the neo-cons led by Marsalis.

 

Either way, these histories ignore the incontrovertible fact
that it’s pretty hard to sit still in your seat when “Chameleon” from Herbie
Hancock’s Head Hunters album comes on
the stereo. Holy moley, this is one heck of an exhilarating track, with so much
syncopated movement going on in the multiple rhythms of the bass, percussion,
conga, drums, and clavinet. For over fifteen minutes, the funk inspiration
strikes, providing perfect grounding for synthesizer and soprano sax solos to
jump around the beats. No, it doesn’t sound like Art Blakey and his Jazz
Messengers or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but
there seems no question that art is being made here.

 

Steven F. Pond sets out to closely examine Head Hunters, and in the process
explores questions of genre identity, commercialism, the African music
diaspora, the nature of funk, and the role of marketing in music. For many
years, Head Hunters was the
best-selling jazz album of all time (until eventually Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue caught up and surpassed
it), and yet critics at the time of its release were sharply divided as to
whether or not it was even jazz. Pond prefers to use fusion jazz as the term
for the music here and by Miles, Weather Report, Return to Forever, and Grover
Washington, Jr., to name a few disparate entities sharing only electric
amplification as common ground. His opening chapter is a bravura take-down of
the idea of narrowly defining genre at all. By comparing a number of critics
and the way they attempt to define these musics as something related to but
largely outside jazz itself, Pond shows that the impulse to reinforce one’s own
tastes through genre rules breaks down at both the edges and the center when
looked at carefully.

 

Commercialism is a bugaboo not just in jazz, but pretty much
all across the musical spectrum. There is seemingly a universal need for
individuals to define their tastes in opposition to that of others, and one of
the easiest ways to do this is to declare popular music inherently lesser than
that which is heard by smaller, apparently hipper audiences. There is no
question that music which receives a larger listenership must have something
which makes it connect to a wider range of backgrounds, but it doesn’t
necessarily follow that the only way to do this is to “dumb” down the product
into an essence of lowest common denominator. For one thing, Duke Ellington,
the Beatles, and Nirvana had huge hits in their careers, but their critical
reputation has never suffered.  Pond
quotes Head Hunters producer David
Rubinson: “They’d say, “Jesus, this record was successful, he made a lot of
money. That must have been his motivation.” And that’s completely backwards.
The motivation was to make the music that they wanted. And the fact that it
sold was a side effect.”

 

 

Pond has a blast tracing the connections between African-based
music around the world and the sound of Head
Hunters
. It may have been mentioned before, but not very often, that funk
is related to the roll of the gankogui bell found in Anlo-Ewe music from the
coast of Ghana, and thus to the more familiar clave heard in Afro-Cuban music.
By incorporating the concept of signifyin’, familiar to us through the
African-American word play of the dozens, into musical terms, and using Amiri
Baraka’s concept of “the changing same” to show that what is borrowed from one
aspect of African culture can be transferred onto a different role with a
similar purpose in another, Pond shows that Head
Hunters
has as much to do with traditions outside the U.S. as it does with
whatever commercial aspirations may have existed in 1973. Here and in the
chapter on funk, Pond uses written music to give extra meaning to his examples;
they are not necessary to gain an understanding of his points, but depending on
familiarity with rhythmic depictions, at least, they do give greater emphasis.

 

Which brings us to funk. Again and again, fusion jazz
musicians in the early years cite James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone as a
primary influence on their decision to try this new approach. Pond demonstrates
exactly what it was that attracted players with a jazz background to this new
syncopated approach, and his close analysis of “Make It Funky” by Brown and
“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin” by Sly give even greater appreciation
for their achievements. In addition, Pond traces the origins of funk itself
back into jazz history, with the incorporation of Afro-Cuban elements into hard
bop. So jazz influenced pop before pop influenced jazz to become pop. Musicians
do their best work when they don’t worry nearly as much as critics and fans do
about genre restrictions.

 

Early on, Pond discusses the concept of a “web of
affiliations,” a notion to which he returns again and again. Genre, commercial
success, African influences, and funk all play a role in the understanding of Head Hunters, but rather than assume
each of these is a separate concept, Pond believes them to be interrelated. The
jazz desire for improvisation and originality merges with the African
influences which were exotic at the time and the funk influences which were
changing the way music was heard, leading to a perfect nexus for commercial
success. But Pond takes these webbed ideas further, and links them to a
discussion of marketing, a subject rarely discussed in any serious works on
music criticism. Head Hunters was not
a success the first few months it was in stores until a particular Warner
Brothers promotions man pushed the record outside of the jazz sections in
record stores and convinced R&B DJs to play it on the radio. Vernon
Slaughter is not a name familiar to music fans, but he brought to life his
conviction that Head Hunters could
reach a new audience. Of course, timing is everything – within a few more
years, radio would be more rigidly controlled, and the influence of one area’s
promotions would not be able to bump sales up nationally.

 

There is more in Pond’s book, particularly about the
aesthetics of studio overdubbing. By focusing so relentlessly on one beloved
album which has not received the critical attention it deserves, Pond forces a
rethinking of much that is conventionally accepted by music historians. It’s
not as though he’s suggesting a dropping of critical standards so much as
remembering that those standards are created the same way that the music is,
within a context of cultural, historical, commercial, artistic, and individual
concepts which change depending on when, where and how – and by whom – they are
viewed.

 

 

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