26 October 2008


Headhunters must be one of the most famous names in the last 50 years of jazz. It was a big day in Canberra when the Headhunters and Marc Mittag came for a workshop and some gigs. Sadly, Canberra didn’t quite recognise the opportunity. The workshop was pleasantly attended but by no means full, and the story was the same for the first of the two gigs. The small numbers gave us an unusual chance to interact with the band, but made work harder for the musos who had to make it all happen with less audience vibe. But nonetheless, the playing was fabulous: granite-solid groove with a rich texture of rhythmic and melodic improvisation threaded through the infectious beats.

The Headhunters played on several albums with Herbie Hancock in the 70s. They were controversial at the time and are still doubted by the legionnaires of the jazz tradition, but some of their tunes are amongst the most played in the jazz repertoire (eg, Chameleon and Watermelon man). The current Headhunters comprise two members from that period: Mike Clark (drums) and Bill Summers (percussion). Jerry Z (keyboard, bass) is a recent member, and Marc Mittag (guitar) is an Australian who admired them from afar, and has recently come to record and tour with them.

The workshop included several tunes, as expected, and these impressed from the outset with this fabulous, solid, melange of rhythms that merge into that trademark relaxed and rock-solid groove. The workshop was a chance to ask questions and converse with the band members; about listening, technical issues, why they do it, that sort of thing. Here are some things I learnt. “I’ll stay home” means to play really straight when noone else is solid enough on the groove. That was new to me. “Why play the music they do?”, “Because I couldn’t get a job in a bank” (or playing pop music in Madonna’s band … “everyday you get the pay”). Techniques of playing bass on organ footpedals: heel & toe technique; doubling up on keyboard for sustain, bass bombs for percussive effect. Use of jazz and matched grips on drums. Solos as conversation: listen, respond, instigate.

There’s plenty of humour with these guys, and this showed later in the gig as well: about spiders and kangaroos, about birthdays, about those Headhunter mega-hits. But hidden amongst this humour there was a serious side, too. Bill Summers talked of companionship and support and running the world at a personal level, with not too much time for politicians (but then who in the US would have in recent years), and Katrina, and some issues of spirituality. I felt this spirituality at various times: a sweet voice singing African song later at the concert; the immense beauty of Afro-Cuban rhythm which he so capably displayed by playing a string of snippets (songo, rhumbas, etc) on congas as a demonstration. I didn’t know this, but there are over 500 of these rhythms, they have to be learnt in an order, and they all represent things in the natural world, like ocean or grasses or mountains. This was a stunning glimpse of these profound rhythms that we know too little of. This little display by Bill Summers was worth the day for me.

The gig was more polished, but still retained the interactions, the humour and the spiritual side. There were some hits of the 70s. There were plenty of tunes by Marc Mittag that took advantage of this groove. There was even a “Happy birthday, Mama” blues to celebrate Mark’s birthday, and his father-to-be status (due in a week or so … best of luck from CJ). More humour introduced the blues: “What key, Mister Z”, “G”. Funk physician, Dr Groove, Mike Clark has apparently played with everyone (except Tiny Tim and Boy George). He talks of asking Elvin how he did such and such, being around when the ride took its role in modern jazz, and the like. This guy was there at the start of funk/jazz (specifically Oakland funk, out of California). I heard complex syncopation, sharp rudiments cutting across and within the beat. Bill had talked of him playing 7,4,9 against the beat, and unexpected counting against complex patterns. Certainly all that. It was a masterful display and got me thinking of this master touring with Hancock, then playing at Top of the Cross. It’s so lucky to hear such a master at close quarters, but also so like the unsparing market system which is musical performance that he was there rather than the Opera House. Bill was the other side of this percussive avalanche. I know too little of Afro-Cuban rhythm structures so they seem deceptively simple. But the earthy hits of the variously pitched congas and cowbells appeared through the more prominent drums to complicate and enrich the rhythm, and this was blissful. Bill also sang a few tunes with a surprisingly sweet and satisfying voice, and was truly profound on an African song where he was accompanied by Fabian Hevia. Fabian was travelling with the band and sat in on percussion for this tune. A pianist-friend of mine was at both sessions and spoke highly afterwards of Jerry Z and the independence that was needed for his organ/bass role. He’d never seen better. The tone of the bass pedals is big and fat and soft, not like an acoustic or electric bass, and was boomy for the first part of the gig, but it was perfectly expressive and effective. I lost some of the synthesiser solos, because the balance seemed a bit low after the organ passages, but they were both insidiously involving and intelligently exploratory. There were simple repeated lines, and out discordant lines, and they fitted smoothly into the groove and within the structure of the solos. Structure was an issue raised by Marc during the workshop, and was demonstrated clearly in the concert. Start understated, leave style and speed and space for development, build a solo. Like those wavy lines in books that talk of solo development. It was this that was on view along with Mark’s catholic background of country and rock and various other styles he’s played. It’s the nature of a working and session musician that he’ll have this background, and this is what I heard, along with his unpretentious, unaffected tone. He was obviously enjoying this time with the masters, and doing a capable job on his own part.

Two other items of note. Firstly, this was a generous concert. The guys played 2 sets of 90 minutes each, reaching into the morning hours. Chick Corea was like this when I heard him many years ago. It’s a level of energy and application which overwhelms. Almost too much. No shirking, and always with that intensity which is clear in the masters. Secondly, this is the first concert I’d attended where you could buy a copy of the concert straight after the gig. Bill Summers had a portable digital recording rig sitting behind him, and two large diaphragm condenser mics at the front corners of the stage, and was burning autographed CDs of the first set after the gig. This is musos taking back the business.

There’s something really true to this groove. It’s got ebb and flow; it’s got levels of interaction and learning and listening. It’s more than what the few underlying chords might imply. This is rich and satisfying groove, and I’ll long remember this day of immersion in the Headhunters.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi there,
I was very unfortunate in not being able to attend the workshop, but I did get to the friday night gig!
Despite a very late start, it was a brilliant gig with awe inspiring drums and percussion coupled with excellent work by the whole band. Fabulous grooves, beautiful solo work, sending me away inspired and with new things to experiment with!
We need more gigs like this in Canberra!
Baz Cooper