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Miles Davis’ 1960s groups produced several subsequent keyboard-playing bandleaders, with Joe Zawinul (Weather Report), Chick Corea (Return to Forever), Keith Jarrett (with his self-titled trio and as a solo artist) and Herbie Hancock (Headhunters) branching out in the early 1970s. Hancock’s initial funk-fusion lineup was short-lived but influential, with percussionist Bill Summers in on the ground floor and drummer Mike Clark joining for its sophomore album (Thrust). The two are co-leaders for Speakers in the House, the unit’s first release since 2011.
Sans Hancock, the Headhunters have proven less synthesized and more second line. “Rocking at the Mole House” features Clark’s New Orleans-inspired marching pattern on snare drum, aided rhythmically by Summers and bassist Reggie Washington, and with an accompanying melody by alto saxophonist Donald Harrison. The strutting “HH 75” showcases Washington and keyboardist Stephen Gordon (on Fender Rhodes electric piano), both of whom take banner solos.
Gordon’s clavinet patterns and piano solo dance on “Over the Bar,” which spotlights Clark’s inside-out drumming metrics and Harrison’s overdubbed saxophone harmonies. Ditto “Vaspurakan,” on which Gordon’s synthesizer and Jerry Z’s Hammond organ create textures within the grooves of Clark’s drums, Summers’ congas and Harrison’s topography. The group even audaciously covers Hancock’s “Actual Proof,” an electric gem from Thrust, as a de-accelerated acoustic swing number featuring Gordon’s piano and Clark’s percolating drums.
From the breakneck opener “Kongo Square,” with Fode Sissoko’s chants and melodies on the 21-stringed African kora and Harrison’s call-and-response sax lines, to the closing “Stop Watch” — a tour-de-force for Clark’s flurried soloing and Summers’ range of hand drums and bells — Speakers in the House proves to be the best Headhunters album since Hancock’s first two efforts with the now 50-year-old band. — Bill Meredith