You’ve reached a Premium article. To continue reading, please login or start a 3-MONTH TRIAL SUBSCRIPTION for just 99 cents/month. You’ll receive unlimited digital access plus a complimentary issue of our award-winning print magazine.
Join Our Newsletter
Join thousands of other jazz enthusiasts and get new music, artists, album, events and more delivered to your inbox.
The Headhunters’ spirit music spans generations, genres and the cosmos itself.
Nearly 50 years after backing Herbie Hancock on his landmark 1973 fusion album Head Hunters, the band named after that record is still going strong. The group’s latest offering, Speakers in the House (Ropeadope), continues its mission of integrating various Black music traditions — including New Orleans and African rhythms — while always keeping it funky.
Along with bassist Reggie Washington and keyboardist Stephen Gordon, the album features what percussionist and group leader Bill Summers calls “the trinity” of himself, drummer Mike Clark and saxophonist Donald Harrison. (Paul Jackson, the band’s founding bassist, died in March 2021.) Clark joined the group for Hancock’s 1974 album Thrust; he and Summers have maintained their musical partnership ever since. To hear Summers tell it, something special happens whenever the band convenes.
“What we do is we go to outer space, and we jump into a black hole,” the New Orleans-based Summers says during a recent phone interview. “We don’t know what we’re going to find there, but we’re going to make it through it. We’re gonna see what’s there, we’re gonna put it together, and we’re gonna make a groove out of it and change the planet in some way.”
The Headhunters have been churning transcendent grooves since they emerged during the early-to-mid-’70s heyday of jazz fusion, which included artists such as Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report. The jazz police at the time weren’t always enthralled, but the Headhunters’ endurance — and enduring influence — has rendered all that irrelevant. “God Make Me Funky” is one of the most sampled songs in hip-hop history, and the band’s DNA can be found in a new generation of artists who have brought their own versions of fusion to the mainstream, including Robert Glasper, Marquis Hill and Snarky Puppy. Summers offers a unique analogy to explain Headhunters’ longevity.
“I walk out on the farm and sometimes I step into some really soft earth, and I look down at my feet and there are a million red ants,” he says with a hearty laugh. “You kick up the dust, but you don’t know what lays below the surface. It’s pretty much the same with this music. Sometimes you have to brush off the dust to get to the meat and potatoes of it.”
The group nods to its roots with a straightahead rendition of “Actual Proof.” As Summers explains, the original version from Thrust was intended as a showcase for the group’s bona fides. “‘Actual Proof’ was the actual proof,” he says.
Indeed, that track established Clark’s reputation as the standard bearer for jazz-funk drummers. When Clark spoke to JAZZIZ last year, he remarked on his fondness for that song, asserting that, “I made a statement that I believed in.” But, as Summers notes, Clark’s first love is straightahead jazz. Like the original, the new version offers proof of Clark’s — and the group’s — versatility.
For Summers, style and genre classifications are meaningless. He’s been quoted as saying the Headhunters are “not musicians, we’re physicians.” That philosophy can be traced to his membership in Aña, a spiritual batá drumming fraternity that dates back to the transatlantic slave trade. When Summers performs in Aña ceremonies, the music takes on a higher purpose.
“In my world, I play music for God,” he says. “The music is used to heal. It’s not just some notes up in the air. It’s playing with the rhythms of the universe. I really believe that in every concept the Headhunters do I make that statement. We’re not musicians, we’re physicians. We cure you. We heal you.”
The new record offers an immediate example of Summers’ intentions through the sounds of the kora — played by Fode Sissoko — at the beginning of “Kongo Square,” the album’s first track. “Back in the day, the griots were the people that played kora,” Summers explains. “It was like a verbal newspaper. So, we decided to have [Sissoko] play in the beginning to represent [that] we’re opening the door. These tracks are like chapters in the book as opposed to songs. Each one of them has something to do with music on the planet.”
Even the album’s title suggests a higher purpose. Summers acknowledges it can contain several possible meanings, but there’s one that’s specific to his intentions. “It could be some KRK speakers in your house that you listen to, or it could be a political statement,” he says. “It could be many things, but I think the most important thing is that we’re speaking to the house. I equate that title to mean that we’re speaking to the people in the house, and the house is the planet, the universe. To me, it's a spiritual name.” - John Frederick Moore