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Jazz Review

Headhunters Return After 20-Year Hiatus

June 24, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Headhunters are back. Finally. It took a long wait and a seemingly interminable introduction, filled with flashing strobe lights, smoke effects and thundering drum loops, before the veteran jazz-funk band arrived on stage Monday night at the Hollywood Athletic Club.

But make it they did, for the first time in two decades, with Herbie Hancock, who founded the Headhunters in 1973, appearing on keyboards. And a jam-packed crowd, many of whom--as Hancock pointed out--may not have been born when the Headhunters were first organized, rocked and rolled with every funk-based rhythm and passionately cheered every solo.

What made the original Headhunters such an appealing group was Hancock's ability to transform the dance-funk rhythms of the '70s into a musical package that was both entertaining and creatively provocative.

Twenty-plus years later, the Headhunters' attractions did not sound all that different. With bassist Paul Jackson and drummer Mike Clark laying down a persistent groove and saxophonist Benny Maupin articulating basic melodies, the music generally locked into hypnotically repetitious patterns.

It often tended, in fact, toward a kind of rudimentary trance music--without the spiritual foundation associated with musics such as, say, qwaali--but effective, nonetheless, in its capacity to evoke mesmerized body-moving responses from its listeners.

Still, within the crowded, overheated confines of the venue, with the sound system pumping out decibels at a level that literally made the balcony vibrate, one could only marvel at the audience response. Given the skill of the players, it was hard to understand how so little of their talent, focused on such largely unsubstantial music, could have such an impact.

Fortunately, a few good pieces eventually emerged: one featuring Maupin's atmospheric bass clarinet, another a lovely theme by pianist Billy Childs.

And, even more fortunate, when Hancock was front and center, the music took a completely different turn. His soloing, always exploratory, always probing the outer limits of the funk style, continually adding piquant dissonances, fiery runs across the keyboard and disjunct rhythms.

The result--as with the original Headhunters--was a combination that brought creative fascination to a performance that might otherwise have drifted into little more than visceral repetitiousness.

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