Review: Headhunters at Under the Bridge

Photo Credit: Roger Thomas

(Under the Bridge, Chelsea, London Thurs. Apr. 25th 2013. Review by Alison Bentley)

Masters of suspense: the dry ice billowed; the iconic yellow mask image from the 1973 Head Hunters album glowed on the screen behind the stage; percussionist Bill Summers promised us at least three tunes from that album- the squelchy synth sounds and powerful grooves began.

It was amazing to think that Summers and drummer Harvey Mason had played on that first album, much copied and sampled. Although the Headhunters band (with various lineups) has been recording without Herbie Hancock since 1976, on this gig they played tunes from their early days, mostly written by Hancock, rather than their more recent hiphop-influenced music.

Cantaloupe Island had a groove that felt like coming home. Mason’s tight funk meshed hypnotically with Summers’ congas; showers of sparks flew from Mason’s cymbals while Summers kept simple time on the cowbell. Summers told us that funk comes out of the polyrhythms of West Africa, and Sly was a perfect example. Dedicated by Hancock to Sly Stone, the drums sounded deep and tribal against Summers’ brittle cabasa sounds. On the surface the groove was wall to wall, but the arrangements were there to keep you on the edge of your seat, sections that built excitement and expectation. Solos floated on the beat like corks on a wave, and after each solo there was total silence before the band burst back in. Butterfly, from the second album, was slower and more harmonically adventurous- a big influence on Robert Glasper and Gretchen Parlato, who’ve both recorded it. Rob Dixon’s soprano played long cries, Shorter-style, before inspiring, impossibly fast patterns across the bar. Where do you go when you’re already playing your fastest? Back to long notes with doubled intensity.

The Head Hunters version of Watermelon Man starts with flutey sounds, and the secret of those sounds was revealed. Summers had just lost a very important instrument onstage, he told us- given to him by Pygmies to bring him closer to God. But he found it- he brandished it and blew into it- a beer bottle. Dixon had a tough tenor tone on this tune, a little like Kenny Garrett or Maceo Parker in his perfectly-timed bluesy phrases. There was a thrilling tension between Mason’s strong backbeats (he looked so relaxed) and Summers’ triplets on the congas- then into 6/8, then swing, then funk, all as natural as breathing.

Summers dedicated an improvised piece to James Brown, irresistibly like Brown’s Sex Machine. ‘Yo Reggie’, we chanted, as Reggie Washington’s bass solo fluttered percussively high up the fretboard, with Pastorius energy. They called the piece Under the Bridge, after the club- its subterranean industrial chic had a cool 70s vibe.

Footprints had a heavy Afro-Latin feel, and Rob Bargad’s superb Fender Rhodes solo seemed to be part of the groove rather than using it as a backdrop, rippling smoothly with just that hint of distortion in the sound. The audience was completely silent for Summers’ virtuoso cabasa feature (the uncontrollable giant-gourd-and-shell kind of cabasa)- then a surge of energy into the iconic Chameleon, a beat that seemed to affect both brain and feet, like a large glass of wine. The mostly young audience, who looked more used to clubbing than jazz clubs, were dancing with abandonment- and I’ve never seen anyone dance to Maiden Voyage before.

‘It’s a blessing to be able to get up here and make people happy,’ said Summers, and it felt like going back to the source, a sort of Platonic ideal of jazz funk.

Categories: miscellaneous

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