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  • Writer's pictureJamie Varley

Watermelon Would Have Been The Easy Choice

The Album

Head Hunters

I will admit, jazz is the last great genre that I have yet to master. It is not due to the amount of time dedicated – countless Saturday mornings have been gladly wasted away over a coffee to Coltrane’s sax or Oscar Peterson’s keys. However, jazz feels like a style impossible to conquer as I just can’t put my finger on exactly why I like it. It makes me feel different than other music in a way I can’t explain, and each standard doing so in a completely different way. It is a genre filled with so many different sounds and expressions with the only tissue linking each album being the desire for exploration and freedom and how that translates to the listener. However, it does make it a tough genre to begin exploring as hopping from one artist to another is like examining singular notes in a trumpet solo.

So, if you are looking to build your jazz portfolio around a singular pillar of jazz music, there is no better place to begin than with the zenith of the genre – Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters.

Head Hunters was not just jazz’s biggest moment – the first jazz album certified platinum – but one that defines two movements. Similar to Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, Herbie ushered along a new movement in jazz. Beginning with his work on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and amplifying it with Head Hunters, his work creatively leveraged engineering and electronic effects to distort and elevate what jazz music could be. This angered jazz traditionalists, as technology didn’t sit well with them as a new instrument in the band, yet ushered in an era of jazz as a universally welcomed genre, not one that was just approachable for typically inner-city black listeners. Its impact on the genre cannot be overstated.

Now the album itself. This album explodes out the speakers with the wonky, atypical synth baseline of “Chameleon”, catches your ear tingles your spine as the huffing flute of “Watermelon Man” begins surrounding itself with other instruments layering onto the welcoming groove, pays tribute to soul/funk icon Sly Stone with its own funk and jazz whirlwind, and dries out in the sun to end the album with “Vein Melter”, written to Herbie’s close friend who overdosed on heroin.

This album is so groovy, so infectious, so unique and so colourful that it rightfully belongs as one of history’s most acclaimed records, period. But it just hits in a way so different than anything else, built on jazz tradition but steeped with flavour, funk and fantasy in such a sensational way that it is unrivalled in music lore.

To learn more about the album, check out Steven F. Pond's Head Hunters: The Making of Jazz's First Platinum Album


The Food

Honey and Hoisin-Chili Glazed Chicken and Spiced Gin Paloma

Finger lickin’ good.

Honey and chicken are one of those food combinations that you take for granted, but have to thank whatever legend in food history decided to mix them together. Maple syrup and bacon is another. Honey chicken is a staple at restaurants for its ooey, gooey, dripping wings and for good reason.

However, honey on its own is not enough to carry the chicken recipe – the sweetness needs something strong to cut through it and this Asian-inspired chili sauce is exactly what does the trick. The mixture is made of predominantly sambal oelek and hoisin, each packing their own distinct sweetness but the ability to cut through the honey with their mouth puckering punch. With some soy added in to elevate the flavours, as well as other Asian cuisine staples in garlic, ginger, and sesame oil and rice vinegar, your mouth is attacked from all five major flavours and your tastebuds are left exhausted and excited.

When I make drumsticks, I prefer to barbecue them, but if you don’t have one available then broiling is the perfect way to ensure a crispy outside and even cook. Lay your chicken on a foil-lined baking tray and broil at 450 for about 15 minutes while you make the sauce. To make the sauce, mix all the ingredients (honey, soy sauce, sambal oelek, hoisin, minced garlic and ginger, rice vinegar, sesame oil and a splash of chicken broth, your choice on proportions) to a boil over medium heat. Stop it when it is thick but not yet condensing to the point it is burnt and looks/smells like tar (been there). Rescue the chicken from the broiler, coat it in the sauce, and top it off for an additional 2 minutes a side. Top with an extra splash of honey and hoisin, and peanuts and cilantro for freshness.

I made a base of white rice for a simple but refreshing pairing, as well as bok choy. Bok choy is a fantastic compliment to this dish as a lot of the same ingredients in the sauce can be mixed into the cooking process for the bok choy. Halve the vegetables, and cook them in a wok with oil, garlic, ginger, soy sauce and chili flakes, and top with sesame for crunch.

The drink-du-jour is a spiced gin paloma. The proportions are 2oz spiced gin, 2oz grapefruit juice, ½ oz lime juice, a dash of sugar or simple syrup, and a salted rim, stirred, and finished off with club soda. Leave a wedge of grapefruit as the garnish and add in a single slice of jalapeno pepper. While palomas are usually built with tequila, I look for any opportunity to mix in a high quality flavoured gin to add more character to the drink. The heat from the cinnamon battles the jalapeno garnish, and the sourness of the grapefruit juice begins at the back of your tongue and meets the spice at the front for a smooth explosion, similar to the chicken. Plus the honey and jalapeno are a match made in heaven – this is definitely a flavour I want to experiment more with.


The Experience

The Ontario fire code would not agree with my first choice, flambéed cucumber water, so instead honey chicken and a spiced gin paloma perfectly match the oozing groove and cosmic punch that Head Hunters body slams your senses with.

What struck me about this record was the diverse inputs that went into the album to create such a bold outcome. Each of the members of the band was trained differently, had a starkly different career to this point, and had different influences going into the album (Bennie Maupin on the woodwinds, who really dictated the tone of the album, said his riffs came from watching kids at Hancock’s shows doing the funky robot). The results are a genre-defying mash of jazz, funk, R&B, Cuban, even strong ties back to African music (see the futuristic, sound engineer take on the Kple Kple mask on the cover), but leads to a futuristic genre that can’t fully be defined of any of them.

I say mash as opposed to blend as the sounds don’t conform or bleed into each other, but instead proudly stand out and support their heritage.

To match the exuberance of the record, a food was needed with some sizzle as the album. With the cocktail and chicken dish, the mission was to create a coordinated palette of flavours where each made a bold statement but came together in a culinary landscape like a Jackson Pollock painting. Between honey, hoisin, chili, garlic, grapefruit, cinnamon and jalapeno, and many other abrasive flavours, the result is a diverse, unexpected, yet tantalizing meal.

The strength of the experience shows the power of new thoughts and ideas and tastes coming together in art. This experience is built on tradition but steeped in flavour, funk and fantasy, coming together to challenge expectations of what a jazz album or a dinner can be. Mary Schmich said "good art is art that allows you to enter it from a variety of angles and to emerge with a variety of views”. By bringing together so many strong and unique voices and flavours, there are no limits or boundaries to the art that is produced.


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