Headhunters headline at Mr. Small’s

I’m standing in a smoky Pittsburgh rock venue with my eyes fixed on the stage. One of the biggest groups in jazz — The Headhunters — is sitting up there, ready to play what will be a mind-blowing, ass-shaking set of funk, jazz, and African music. There’s just one problem: the percussionist is blowing on a beer bottle. Unlike your average physics teacher who blows random pitches on a glass bottle during lecture, or kids who blow on Coke bottles at the dinner table to tick off their parents, percussionist Bill Summers was actually laying down a beat out of a half-empty vHeineken.

The night seemed to be defined by this opening moment of the show, a defiance of what “jazz” and “funk” music could be. The Headhunters, a group that started with jazz legend Herbie Hancock as bandleader and keyboardist in the early ’70s, are known for their ability to fuse elements of Sly Stone funk, Miles Davis jazz, and traditional African rhythms into a groove-heavy yet harmonically-captivating musical experience.

Although the group has gone through multiple band member switches over the past 30 years, they are once again starting to settle down with their new lineup. “Conceptually, the music is no different,” said percussionist (and only original Headhunters band member) Bill Summers in a phone interview. “We play the melodies like they were on the records, but we’re trying to explore new territories.” Summers is pleased with the product that has been created from the unique flavors and styles the musicians bring to the plate. “[Saxophonist] Donald [Harrison], [bassist] George [Porter, Jr.] and I are all from New Orleans, so we’re able to represent cultures and styles that most jazz groups can’t.”

You could tell from the opening notes of “Watermelon Man” — an old-school Headhunters tune off their first record — that the Headhunters are really something special. Porter, who used to play in the New Orleans funk group The Meters, has an uncanny ability to lock into grooves with drummer Mike Clark. “It’s all about pocket,” Porter said after the show. “It doesn’t matter what kind of chops you got. If you can’t lock into a groove, your chops don’t mean anything.” What set the rhythm section apart from most was the ability to balance out the grooves with their phenomenal technique and soloing ability. Porter, who calls himself a “disgruntled guitar player who never really practiced bass,” took melodically and rhythmically complex solos that never held the groove down and showcased his chops.

“We’re gonna take it back so we can take it forward. This song was written before most of you were even born!” The opening notes of “Sly” — an old Headhunters tune written for funk legend Sly Stone — broke through the PA as alto saxophone god Harrison played smooth lines and keyboardist Jerry Z laid down funky and ethereal textures with his organ and clavinet.

With three members of the group from N’awlins, a tribute to the fallen city was inevitable. Unlike most somber and Debbie-downer tributes, however, the group made sure to make theirs an energetic and uplifting one. The group played “Welcome to New Orleans,” a simple-yet-funky tune that kept the crowd dancing and smiling. Donald Harrison stepped up with his saxophone and, with his eyes squinting and his face scrunching, undoubtedly played his most passionate and finest solo of the evening. Summers picked up where Harrison left off, playing a well-deserved percussion solo that showed the audience what real virtuosic percussion was all about.

Toward the end of “Sly,” I looked down to write a few notes, and by the time I looked back up, Summers had picked up a shaker and the bass and keyboards had dropped out. The group had seamlessly made their way into a tribal-based number with Harrison and Summers chanting away. Summers, as usual, did an awesome job creatinga just enough color and texture with his percussion to add another layer to the music. Unlike many percussionists, he never overplayed or outdid the soloist.

When the bass and keyboards came back in, the group had eased into “Chameleon,” possibly one of the most famous jazz/funk numbers of all time, one that is still covered by jazz cats, rock bands, and even jambands. Porter once again laid down a funky bass line, while adding syncopations and fills that let the soloist know he wasn’t just a machine. Drummer Clark pounded away behind the soloist and, although sometimes monotonous, never lost energy.

Since the theme of the night was “groove,” the show appropriately ended with a loco-la-cabesa drum duel between Clark and Summers. The two would trade off taking eight-bars of flashy, virtuosic, and melodic solos that included 16th-note whirlwinds, blues shuffles, and hard rock head pounding.

“The legends and founders of jazz music are mostly gone,” said Clark. “It’s up to the disciples to add to it and build on what the founders laid down, and we’re just trying to take solos further and push rhythmic and harmonic boundaries that were laid down in the past.”

Matt Siffert | Staffwriter