'Head Hunters' Found A New Direction In Jazz Herbie Hancock's album is now considered one of the defining moments in jazz fusion. The Library of Congress is preserving the album in its musical collection as one of the country's most culturally significant audio recordings. Hancock and producer David Rubinson reflect on the album's creation and long-lasting impact.
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'Head Hunters' Found A New Direction In Jazz

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'Head Hunters' Found A New Direction In Jazz

'Head Hunters' Found A New Direction In Jazz

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

For the past couple of months, we've brought you the stories of important pieces of music and sound, audio treasures chosen for the National Recording Registry. The Library of Congress chooses 25 each year. Today, we complete the series by independent producer Ben Manila with the story of Herbie Hancock's "Head Hunters." It's one of the biggest-selling jazz albums of all time, and the record that helped define a new genre called fusion.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STEVE POND (Author, "Head Hunters: The Making of Jazz's First Platinum Album"): My name is Steve Pond, and I wrote a book called, "Head Hunters: The Making of Jazz's First Platinum Album."

Mr. DAVID RUBINSON (Producer, "Head Hunters"): My name is David Rubinson, and I produced the album "Head Hunters" for Columbia Records and Herbie Hancock. When I hear someone like Herbie play - I mean, Herbie plays spoons, Herbie can play pencils. He's just an incredibly gifted musician.

Mr. HERBIE HANCOCK (Musician): My name is Herbie Hancock, and I'm a musician. Basically, I play jazz and various extensions of it. At a certain point, I became the kind of musician that has tunnel vision about jazz. I only listen to jazz and classical music. But then, when I noticed that Miles Davis was listening to everything - I mean, he had albums of Jimi Hendrix, he had Beatles' records, he had Rolling Stones, James Brown - I started to re-examine this, kind of, closed attitude that I had. And one of my favorites was Sly Stone and especially the song "Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself Again." It was, I thought, was the funkiest thing I ever heard. And that was one of the biggest influences of me going in the direction of "Head Hunters" in the first place.

(Soundbite of "Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself Again")

Sly And The Family Stone: (Singing) Thank you for letting me be myself again...

Mr. POND: What Herbie did was begin to make the funk album, not a jazz one, and in the end, he found that he couldn't walk away from his own background, that the album was going to have a jazz component to it. It was intensely, in fact, part of a jazz statement.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RUBINSON: We made "Head Hunters" in 1973. If you know Herbie, you know he's the most inquisitive person that I've ever met. He has a degree in electronics, and he heard the funk music, and he heard what was going on with it. And he put together a band, and they went out on the road. And what we did was, we had them play live Herbie's compositions, but grown and developed in an organic, group consciousness, band situation playing live. One of the members of the group was Bill Summers. Now, Bill Summers was extremely Afrocentric. He was a scholar in African music.

Mr. HANCOCK: For the most part, Jazz musicians have kind of an innate curiosity about the various cultures that we are exposed to, and this opens up the possibility of integrating aspects of another culture in to this life blood of jazz.

Mr. POND: One of the songs, "Watermelon Man" begins with a recreation on beer bottles of a one-note flute tradition from Central African pygmies.

(Soundbite of song "Watermelon Man")

Mr. RUBINSON: People couldn't figure out how that was done. It was incredible. And the bottles were tuned to replicate African instruments of the same kind.

(Soundbite of song "Watermelon Man")

Mr. POND: The way the song opens is a combination of voice and whistling into the beer bottle, and there are five different tracks of Bill Summers, you know, making this sound. And all interlocking in a way that is very consistent with West African and Central African music making. And that also, by the way, parallels the way that James Brown's music is put together in a sort of a matrix where the groove is spread out around a whole lot of different instruments, creating sort of a wonderful recycling matrix figure.

(Soundbite of song "Watermelon Man")

Mr. RUBINSON: And you know, traditionally, jazz has a white audience. You go to a jazz concert, mostly white people. But during the black awareness period, when all the young black people in the country were coming much more aware of their heritage, the Afro-centricity of the music hit home right away.

(Soundbite of song "Watermelon Man")

Mr. POND: So much of what "Head Hunters" is about is playing the sound. Sounds that really didn't have much precedence in jazz.

(Soundbite of song "Chameleon")

Mr. POND: For example, in "Chameleon," that base line, it sounds like it's being played by an electric bass guitar. It's actually played by two synthesizers, and what sounds like the guitar line that comes in is actually being played by the bass player, Paul Jackson, played at the highest register on the electric bass. Herbie didn't use an electric guitar on this album.

Mr. RUBINSON: So Herbie discovered the synthesizer at that point, which at that time was an analog synthesizer, so it was gigantic walls of dials and buttons and push pins. And we decided that we were going to go for it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RUBINSON: Prior to the late '60s or early '70s, the process of recording was basically controlled by the white record companies and the white engineer. I brought Herbie into all the technical and production aspects, including the mix and the post production. And with his genius and his talent for electronics, he got what you could do, and he just rocked it like they say, went boing.

LYDEN: Herbie Hancock's album, "Head Hunters," preserved for all time in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. Our story was produced by Ben Manila and Media Mechanics.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: And that's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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