Fusion heads

Here's how drummer Mike Clark experienced a tipping point in jazz history: Herbie Hancock had released the Head Hunters LP, named for his new group, and the single "Chameleon." The group hit the road, starting in Chicago, playing clubs and staying in "suicide hotels with the blue light blinking on and off outside." But as they went town to town, the tune seemed to pick up radio play.

By the time they got to Columbus, Ohio, they'd worked their way up to a Holiday Inn with a lounge band. And when Clark heard that band playing their hit, "I said, 'You know what? This thing is taking off.' And then it just went nuts. The next thing, we're playing huge theaters, we couldn't play clubs anymore."

Head Hunters, with its funky, new take on fusion, became the biggest-selling jazz disc to date: released in 1973, a 500,000-selling gold record in 1974, and a million-selling platinum disc in 1986. Its place in jazz history is underscored by the recent Head Hunters: The Making of Jazz's First Platinum Album by Steven F. Pond (University of Michigan Press; 264 pp., $27.95). Pond comes at the music every which way, from discussions of African aesthetics as they relate to jazz history and culminating in the Head Hunters sessions, to musical transcriptions of key passages from the disc and from the funk pioneer Sly Stone, to the backstory of how legendary Columbia promo man Vernon Slaughter pushed "Chameleon" with R&B radio (the marvelously named Chuck McCool in D.C. was a key convert) and dance club disc jockeys. Eventually finding a berth on jazz, R&B and free-form rock stations, this was a new kind of crossover hit, and a new chapter in the age-old art vs. commerce debate.

Another sign of the disc's impact is that the Headhunters (as the group renders the name) funk on, 30-plus years after their debut release. The group's first run lasted about five years, working with and without Hancock. A late '90s reunion was marred by a "let's make a million dollars" mind-set, as Clark puts it. But a couple years back, Clark and percussionist Bill Summers (a former Detroiter, by the way) got together and "just started to have some real fun like in the old days." The Headhunters are now an off-and-on reunion of alums, old friends and younger players who grew up with "Chameleon" and the widely sampled "God Made Me Funky" (it's on the Fugee's "Ready or Not," for instance) as part of their musical mother tongue.

For the upcoming gigs, the band has Clark, Summers, former James Brown trombonist Fred Wesley, George Porter of the Meters on bass, Clark's frequent collaborator Jerry Z on keyboards, and Outkast's associate Kebbi Williams on sax.

Clark figures he's done pretty well with a band he "wasn't supposed to be in." In-demand studio drummer Harvey Mason cut the debut disc, but wasn't interested in touring.

A busy Bay-area club guy, Clark regularly backed such straight-ahead artists as Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw, and got funkier on organ gigs. He also happened to room with bassist Paul Jackson, who'd played the Head Hunters sessions. Hancock called the pad regularly, and one day, "like, he goes, are you the guy Paul tells me all the time can play all this twisted kind of funk?" Next came an impromptu session at Hancock's studio, after which Hancock told Clark and Jackson, "'You guys are going to get plane tickets. I'll see you in Chicago on Monday.' And he stormed out of the room," Clark says. Hancock never exactly told them they had the gig, even if it did go on for years.

As to Pond's book, Clark credits it as pretty good for the work of a guy who wasn't there. He credits some of it as accurate, some as opinions of people who don't know what they're talking about, a good bit polished by over-idolizing the subject matter.

And the Headhunters are a band that'll always defy accurate transcriptions, Clark says, "because a lot of it was about the grease in the funk slipping through the cracks." Which has got to be hard to notate, whatever exactly it means.


Friday, July 21, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-3030.

W. Kim Heron is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]