Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 #15

Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters

This site is called PopNotes for a reason. Pop music and it’s many subgenres and fusion genres – and, to a lesser extent, popular music – is the type I’m most familiar with and most enjoy. It isn’t MetalNotes or RapNotes or SkaNotes. (Hmm, sister site branding opportunities galore.) Give me a great pop record and I have more to say than I can comfortably ask you to endure. With many other genres, my ignorance of the art form, that lack of historical perspective, can leave me ill-equipped to write intelligently about a record.

As part of my never-ending effort to be a more rounded listener, I have been playing more jazz. To the extent I’ve played such music previously, it’s definitely leaned heavily on the smooth or easy listening side. Guided by sites like Acclaimed Music, I’ve checked in on classics from folk like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. That’s not how I got around to Herbie Hancock, of course, but “Head Hunters” is certainly not my usual fare. My wife made that point when she heard it playing on arriving home yesterday. Of course, exposing myself to “not my usual fare” was sort of the reason this site came to exist in the first place. 

But is this jazz?

If you punch “Herbie Hancock” into Google, the sidebar on your iPad will tell you he’s an “American jazz pianist”. Google has that way of reducing things to their finest point. Or maybe not so finest: Clint Eastwood is “former Mayor of Carmel-by-the-sea” (I was expecting “American actor”, thus ignoring his two Oscars for directing), Mother Teresa is “Saint” (the details are a bit more complicated), and Jesse Jackson is “former Shadow US Senator”, the meaning of which escapes me. And sometimes it leaves out critical information: Tucker Carlson is an “American television host”, instead of the far more accurate “racist entitled POS American television host”.

The point of this is that I, too, would describe Hancock as a jazz musician, despite the one track I knew by him being absolutely not jazz. The “experts” who pick the Grammys called it rhythm and blues, which is so, so wrong. I’ve also seen “Rockit” described as electro and jazz hip-hop, which gives you a sense of the challenges that come with such labelling.

When I think of jazz, this album is not where my head goes. My first impression is that it’s more of a funk record, but that’s too simplistic. Jazz fusion is probably the most accurate term. It starts from a jazz base, but there are rock and funk and soul elements and probably a dozen other things I haven’t noticed yet.

Someone – the source is very uncertain – said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Part of that is about the subjective messiness of taste, but it’s mainly a comment on the challenge of using one form of expression to explain a different form. My solution to that problem has been to try and filter my experience of a piece of music through some connection to my life. It can be a difficult trick when dealing with something completely new, so then it becomes about how the music makes me feel. In that vein, the almost 16-minute long opener “Chameleon” is the track that shines most for me. It feels fun, fresh, alive. Your stride turns into a strut and you may even feel like doing a spin. You feel like you have an edge on all the poor bastards who aren’t listening along with you. I felt fitter, more dapper. I felt cool, in a way that I really am not, like I had the answer to a question that I’d never before thought of asking. As weird as all of that may come across, it isn’t about a sound – it’s a vibe. A mood. A spirit.

None of the above probably helps that much in deciding whether you want to spend 42 minutes listening to “Head Hunters”. All I can offer in the way of assistance is that I loved it, but it took more like 126 to 168 minutes to get comfortable with the record. I did that at the expense of spinning a Ben Folds or Elvis Costello favourite for the 500th time, but I’m okay with that: it’s just part of the tradeoff in becoming “more rounded”.