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The Headhunters: Speakers in the House (Ropeadope)

Review of the funk-jazz pioneers' first album in more than 10 years

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Cover of the Headhunters album Speakers in the House
Cover of the Headhunters album Speakers in the House

Herbie Hancock assembled the Headhunters in 1973, putting the fun in funk-jazz for a platinum-selling debut album that joined the piano giant with percussionist Bill Summers and others for classic tracks “Chameleon” and “Watermelon Man.” Nearly a half-century later, long after Hancock left and more than a decade since the band’s last recording, the concept lives on. Summers, saxophonist and fellow New Orleanian Donald Harrison, and longtime Headhunters drummer Mike Clark again have tweaked the sound.

Platinum, their 2011 release, had the Headhunters inject hip-hop into the mix with contributions from the likes of George Clinton, Snoop Dogg, and Killah Priest. For Speakers in the House, the Crescent City sound plays a stronger role on tunes including “Rockin at the Mole House,” its second-line rhythms cued by drum kit and congas and topped by Harrison’s bluesy alto figures and a burrowing bass synth line.

Opener “Kongo Square” of course nods to New Orleans but gets its kicks from Fode Sissoko’s gorgeous unaccompanied kora playing and wordless vocals. It also gains from simmering percussion and lots of fruitful back-and-forth between Harrison and trumpeter Ashlin Parker, leader of the New Orleans-based Trumpet Mafia.

The relatively brief album, clocking in at about 45 minutes, offers a mostly infectious tour of various shades of funk and jazz. “HH 75,” with Reggie Washington’s bright-sounding bass guitar leading, is a bit reminiscent of fusion in the mold of Stanley Clarke (and ’70s Headhunters). “Over the Bar,” with its barking clavinets, twisty chord changes, and zippy horn lines, feels like a Stevie Wonder-ish instrumental before sliding into a more open, jazz-fueled section featuring pianist Stephen Gordon and Washington. There are other highlights here too, including the sticky James Brown-style groove on “Vaspurakan” and the Afro-Cuban breakdown and Harrison and Gordon’s brash solos on “Stop Watch.”

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Philip Booth

Philip Booth is a longtime arts journalist and bass player based in Florida. Formerly the pop music critic for the Tampa Tribune, he has contributed to many national publications, recently including the Washington PostJazziz, and Relix. His byline also has appeared in DownBeat, Bass Player, Billboard, Variety, Spin, Rolling Stone, and several academic journals. Sharkskin, the second album from his long-running band, Acme Jazz Garage, has aired on radio stations across the U.S.