Any short list of ideas from the ’70s worth reviving should include a reunion of the Headhunters, Herbie Hancock’s groundbreaking yet short-lived fusion band that held onto the ideology of jazz while integrating rhythmic elements of soul. The reunited band, the funkiest of the electric jazz lot that included Return to Forever and Weather Report, picks up where they left off, playing an engrossing and grounded brand of electric jazz that bears little resemblance to contempo smooth jazz or even Hancock’s other electric works.
The weight of having the bestselling jazz album of all time — Columbia’s “Head Hunters” from 1973 — hardly daunts the unit, instead serving as a launch pad for ideas full of tweaks and twists from the soloists and an unforgiving groove on the bottom. With glowing versions of the classics — “Watermelon Man” was dropped in early, “Chameleon” closed the set, and “Cantaloupe Island” was the encore — the new numbers held up to the task of comparison: “Funk Hunter,” an ambitious and driving number that pivots off a riff from Bill Cosby’s Chet Kincaid theme; the Sly Stone-derived “Skank It”; and “Premonition,” which lost the audience as Bennie Maupin started with a soothing, introspective solo on the bass clarinet and picked up steam as the band kicked in.
Assuredness was abundant in each musician’s presentation throughout the 90-minute perf, a well-received homecoming of sorts from a crowd that, Hancock joked, wasn’t born when the band’s first disc was released. Maupin, in particular, has been the unlucky victim of typecasting over the years, his work with Hancock in the ’70s and on Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” seemingly placing him in the black hole of fusion. His gigs around L.A. in recent years have shown him to be an inventive player on a variety of woodwinds, performing in a context that taps into the compositional efforts of the late trumpeter Woody Shaw, who bridged a fusion ethos with acoustic instrumentation. Maupin is a star here, a sure sign that his input deserves an appreciation on par with Hancock.
On the band’s upcoming disc, being released on Hancock/Verve as part of the pianist’s wide-ranging deal with several labels in the Polygram fold, Hancock, Childs and Patrice Rushen alternate at the keyboards but Hancock is the one who pushes this band to the outer edges. Just as he did 25 years ago, Hancock comes to play with a Rhodes Electric Piano, this time augmented with a Yamaha synthesizer. Hancock, who did a considerable amount of talking between numbers, favors an electric harpsichord sound when he isn’t going after a grand piano effect and in this setting he never locks into anything even remotely redundant. There’s a lot of life left in this band.