By Jonty Watt
Headhunters – Herbie Hancock
1973, Sony Music Entertainment Inc.
I dare you to listen to the first minute of Herbie Hancock’s 1973 album Headhunters and not tap your toes, nod your head, waggle your hips, or otherwise let its sheer funkiness come bursting out of you. It’s literally impossible, I’m convinced. In fact, once you get going you’ll find it hard to stop for the album’s entire duration: Headhunters is forty-two minutes of non-stop jazz-funk excellence.
Headhunters represents a landmark moment in the legendary pianist’s career, and in the development of jazz more generally. For Hancock, this album came after a period of avant-garde experimentation, including albums like Mwandishi and Crossings (in both, the influence of Miles Davis’s paradigmatic Bitches Brew looms large). Hancock himself described wanting to ‘play something lighter’, and Headhunters is the result.
For the jazz world, it was a breath of fresh air. Perhaps for the first time, jazz and funk had found genuine synthesis, and this would come to be a pivotal turn in the development of the jazz-fusion movement. Hancock and the band he worked with to record Headhunters would later go on to record pure funk albums, like Survival of the Fittest (1975).
Headhunters was a huge commercial success, and I think it’s easy to see why. Each of its four tracks are infectious, and the silky bass lines just don’t stop. The album’s first track, “Chameleon” is without doubt its pièce-de-résistance, and “Watermelon Man” is a fan favourite (having first appeared on Hancock’s 1962 debut album, Takin’ Off). For me, though, I can’t help but feel most summery when listening to the third track, “Sly”. It starts off so effortlessly, then all of a sudden breaks into an uptempo series of solos that will knock your socks off. Saxophonist Bennie Maupin’s playing might steal the limelight, but it’s the relentless grooves of percussionist Bill Summers and drummer Harvey Mason that really keep this tune rolling.
Winterreise – Jerskin Fendrix
2020, Untitled Recs Ltd.
Okay, admittedly an album called Winterreise might not be the most obvious choice for a summertime bangers list, but give me a moment and I’ll try to explain myself. This is an eclectic debut album from an eclectic musician. It’s one of those rare albums about which you can genuinely say that no two tracks sound the same. In fact, the album seems to revel in this variety, its un-pin-down-ability.
The opening track “Manhattan” sets the scene. A meandering, tone-poem-esque monologue set in the past, present, and future all at once, it’s immediately clear that this isn’t going to be any old album. There’s something off, something wonky about this music, but it is just so deliciously wonky. Those wrong notes in the opening piano solo – they’re just so right.
For all its quirks, Winterreise is an album that teeters on the edge of being a compendium of certified summer bangers. Take “Swamp”, for instance. On paper it has all the ingredients for a windows-down, wind-through-your-hair anthem: catchy rhythms, chirpy synths, perfectly judged crescendos, impeccable drops. In practice, though, the track always becomes something else just when you think you’ve finally worked it out. It teases you – there’s no other word for it. But I’m okay with that when it sounds so good.
Other highlights on this album include “I’ll clean your sheets” (Simon and Garfunkel meets Lana Del Rey) and “Onigiri” (complete with a charming xylophone solo). If you’re looking for an album that actually reflects what it means to be in England in the summer months, I can’t think of many better choices. Winterreise takes us from grey skies to blaring sun to sleet and back again in a way that is, to me, more compelling, more real, more London.
Atmospheres Transparent/Opaque – Catherine Lamb
2019, Anthology of Recorded Music, Inc.
This final recommendation is for those among us who need a bit of rest and relaxation. May and June can be stressful, so it’s lucky that there’s music like this to take the edge off. Catherine Lamb is a composer of slow music. Really slow music. The centrepiece of this album is her 2018 composition Prisma Interius IX. In this recording, it’s 53 minutes long. The score, however, is just five pages. Glacial is the only word for it.
And listening to Prisma Interius IX, that impression is not proven wrong. The music does unfold very, very slowly. Changes are always subtle. It would be hard to listen for any kind of ‘structure’. To me, though, it never feels formless; it drifts along, but always with this kind of compulsive forward momentum. This is music that doesn’t need to rush to get where it is going. Instead, it can take us there with total conviction, allowing us in this comfortable certainty to bask in the magnificent journey along the way.
It’s tempting – and I have been guilty of this myself – to dismiss music like this as ‘ambient’. There is of course nothing wrong with ambient music, but I find the label tends to induce a kind of ambivalence in a listener. I don’t think Prisma Interius IX is music to be listened to passively. It is rich enough and changeable enough that it is genuinely engaging for its full length. What it does do, though, is invite the listener to surrender themself entirely to the music, to ignore everything else for a while: switch off, zone out, and just bask.
If you’ve never tried listening to music like this, I think this album, boasting excellent performances by Ensemble Dedalus and guitarist Didier Aschour, is a great introduction. The album also features Catherine Lamb’s seven Overlays Transparent/Opaque. These are much shorter snapshots into her sound-world, and might be a good place to start if you are apprehensive or in a rush. I particularly recommend number two.If this album does whet your appetite for more, I would also recommend Lamb’s String Quartet No. 1, or, for something a little more bite-sized, her point/totality for two pedal steel guitars.