This is a famous and critically acclaimed album, and rightly so. Hancock leads a quartet completed by Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, so it’s the rhythm section of the second great Miles quintet plus Hubbard, who plays cornet rather than his usual trumpet. They play four progressive, stripped-down compositions, with harmonic structures so loose that the solos are largely unconstrained, with the final number, ‘The Egg’, going completely free. Hubbard and Hancock play flowing post-bop lines that are as advanced as anything ever put down in the idiom, and Carter and Williams are with them all the way, reacting to every nuance. The first three tracks all became jazz standards, and one of these, the groove-based altered blues ‘Cantaloupe Island’, even became a top-40 hit and the theme tune for Kentucky Fried Chicken (but only once a poppy beat had been added, along with some dopey vocals saying ‘funky funky’ over and over, just in case you couldn’t tell)!
The jazz-funk on this Headhunters album is as ‘70s as the picture on the front showing Herbie flying to Machu Picchu in his space ship. It’s somewhere between Miles’ ‘On the Corner’, and Chick Corea’s Return to Forever band; more focused on solos than the former, but freer and less arranged than the latter. The highlight is ‘Actual Proof’, on which Hancock takes an extended solo in which he plays just the same kind of harmonically advanced flowing lines on electric piano that he previously had on conventional piano.