Event Reviews

Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters

Senkai Hall, Osaka Japan • August 31,1998

Before I get into the review, I just want to say that there is really no reason to go to a jazz concert that is taking place in a concert hall, stadium, or outdoor festival. In fact, there is little reason to attend any concert that goes down at one of these venues, unless of course it’s glam rock. But seriously, the hard core energy and root of jazz music gets lost in all that space. At a concert hall, it is nearly impossible for the musicians to connect directly with the patrons when their sound has to get by all the ushers and assigned seats and plush decor and massive headroom and shit. And the sound usually sucks… always too much bass. There is NO EXCUSE for the sound to be so shitty in such an acoustically designed, professional, and clean (or sterile perhaps) environment.

Unfortunately, Herbie and the Headhunters played in a large concert hall and it only made their performance suffer more then their playing did. Yes, I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t the ecstatically orgasmic performance that it should have been. Never in my dreams did I imagine that I might get a chance to dig the Headhunters live in concert, and now I kind of wish that I hadn’t even gone, ‘cause what’s the point of seeing one of the greatest bands in jazz history lay down a half-assed set that sadly turned my impression of them from being the pioneers of acid jazz to the geriatrics of it.

The set started out with Bill Summers coming on stage and kicking it with some percussion work, and then Bennie Maupin jumped in on tenor saxophone and Mike “the UN-funky drummer” Clark got in, and finally Paul Jackson came out and did some of that showmanship bass that electric jazz players love to do as their introduction. This was after his failed attempt at speaking Japanese and laughing with the audience as Mr. Maupin immediately showed us how he made that “polyphony” sounding pygmy chant on “Watermelon Man” by blowing into a beer bottle with a saucy breath that no one on Earth can replicate.

The man of the hour, Mr. Hancock, showed up, and the band went into a lengthy series of new material from their new album, Return of the Headhunters. Don’t think I’ll be buying that one. It was just kind of lukewarm funk, old folks trying to dig on a fresh ’90s sounding acid jazz. It was sad in many ways. I get the feeling that they jumped on a retro train and instead of really doing some funky riff searching, just threw out some mediocre funk and electric jazz. Too modern-sounding all around, and almost contemporary in many ways.

It was explained to the audience that the line up of musicians for the evening was the “original” Headhunters. The drummer was not on the album entitled Headhunters, but he did tour with the group and played on some live recordings back in the mid ’70s. This guy sucks though. The fact that this brother is a white guy just lends to the popular belief that white kids don’t have the funk, but then again this is Japan, the land of synchronized dancing and people who couldn’t find a beat to save their damn souls. Anyway, Mike Clark was a really sorry addition to the group this evening, with his addiction to the snare and straight-ahead beats that were far far far from funk enthused.

And then there was Paul Jackson, who broke a fucking bass string thirty seconds into the second song. For the entire performance, except when he embarrassed himself with soulful singing about the children of the future (JESUS – kill me now, I never want to hear another soul/funk song about children and the future or any shit like that again – CHRIST!), he cranked his bass so loud that it was dominating the city of Osaka. Seriously, you had to strain to hear the rest of the musicians who were drowning in a bowl of cream of bass soup.

I have nothing bad to say about Benny Maupin or Bill Summers, who were without a doubt the most killer players of the evening. And then there was Herbie, who was good, but his levels were too low. I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t hear his playing clearly half the time… even on monumental numbers like “Chameleon” and “Watermelon Man” – he was drowning in the soup of sorrow. I was also a bit sad to see him playing on modern Roland keyboards rather then on some funky clavinets and old school synths, but he is a tech freak.

What else is there to say? It took them about 90 minutes to warm up and they finally got around to some impressive playing when they did their signatures “Chameleon” (the most frequently reproduced or ripped-off song in Acid Jazz) and “Watermelon Man,” but even then, there was little improvisation and not enough enthusiasm to make the live versions better then the recorded. And then the show was over. Two “thirty dollar bills” for a ticket, two beers, and two hours of music later, and it was over. I shouldn’t have gone. It ruined my dream of seeing one of the greatest groups in jazz history live. But your heroes must die someday, and the [rip-off retro] Nineties are as good a place as any for that to happen.

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