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MUSIC: Ventura County | SOUNDS

Key Player

Jazz pianist Hancock slates rare outing with the Headhunters.

September 10, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One night earlier this summer, funk discs and waves of anticipation rattled the walls of the storied Hollywood Athletic Club. That night, the Headhunters were kicking off their eagerly awaited reunion album and tour.

In the house, the capacity crowd represented a wildly diverse demographic. Fortysomethings who recalled the sensation of the debut Headhunters album in 1973 rubbed elbows with young funk-loving fans who were not yet born when the album came out 25 years ago but were tapping into the current retro '70s funk fashion.

That irony was not lost on keyboardist Herbie Hancock, the jazz icon who would be funk king, who founded the group and ushered in one of the more commercial chapters in his long, brilliant career. Hancock, never one to pay strict attention to schedules, hit the stage late--predictably--but delivered the goods.

In concert, the band quickly established the delicate stylistic balance between jazz and soul, and the raucous rhythmic feel that made it legendary, but whenever Hancock played a solo, the artistry level went up a few notches. Between classics such as "Chameleon" and "Watermelon Man," and new songs, such as the fittingly dubbed "Funk Hunter," Hancock established his easy, unpretentious rapport with the crowd and talked about working on the first Headhunters project not far from this Athletic Club turned hip music haunt.

Hancock plays on only a few tracks on the new album, "Return of the Headhunters" (Verve Forecast/Hancock Records), but most of the keyboard duties fall on younger musicians Patrice Rushen and Billy Childs--who are heavily influenced by Hancock's style.

Because of his busy schedule and multiple musical projects, including an upcoming Gershwin tribute album, Hancock is committed to only a handful of live Headhunters dates. That alone makes this Sunday's Headhunters date at the Ventura Theatre, with Hancock at the helm, a show worth checking out.

The Headhunters' reunion album also marks the launching of Hancock Records, in conjunction with his current corporate home, Polygram. Hancock said he had been "thinking for some years about putting something together with [the Headhunters] again. Then when the label idea came along, it made a lot of sense to do it on my label. It was a good way to launch it."

At the infectiously rhythmic core of the Headhunters' sound is the rapport between the distinctive bassist Paul Jackson--inventor of cool, rubbery riffs--and drummer Mike Clark, a supple player. Although Clark wasn't on the debut album, which featured Harvey Mason, he has been an integral part of the live and recording band ever since.

Even so, playing in a funk vein was never Clark's goal, and most of his time outside the Headhunters has been devoted to playing jazz proper.

"All my energy and time go into post-bop and bebop drumming," he said. "The only time I've played funk at all is when they called me for this gig. Headhunters has its own life, so that's a different proposition. I love the brothers in the band, and we've been together for 30 years.

"It's some real special stuff," Clark continued. "And, of course, I jump at any chance to play with Herbie Hancock. I don't care if we're playing a wedding, you know what I mean? You can tell Mr. Hancock that I'm opting for playing in his jazz trio. I'm busting his chops about it, saying 'Let me in.' "

People tend to go out of their way to play with Hancock, just as actors jump at the chance to work with Woody Allen. Legends let their reputations do the legwork.

Hancock, the most celebrated jazz musician currently making Los Angeles his home, has had an unusually varied musical life, including forays into both experimental music and chart-topping tunes, such as his percolating "Rockit" in the early '80s. Later, he nabbed an Oscar for his scoring work in Bernard Tavarnier's film " 'Round Midnight."

But the Chicago native made his first lasting impression as part of what is arguably the greatest jazz combo in history, the Miles Davis quintet of the mid-'60s, before Davis ventured into electric jazz. He always had broad musical tastes.

"I've been listening to the avant-garde since the '60s," Hancock commented, "as well as the more straight-ahead stuff. Playing with Miles in the '60s left an indelible imprint on me, and that was pretty experimental stuff we were doing."

To clarify a misconception, Hancock did not play on Davis' epochal plugged-in jazz classic, "Bitches Brew."

"I was in California with my own band. I quit Miles in '68, and 'Bitches Brew' was in '69. But then I still did records with Miles after that, like 'On the Corner' and 'Live Evil.' The electric Miles period really started after the records I did with him."

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