Hubert Laws, Morning Star

Album of the Week, June 3, 2023

As we’ve seen, Hubert Laws was a staple of the funky side of the CTI roster, appearing on several key recordings by Freddie Hubbard. In his own sessions as leader, though, the material leaned more toward the “Third Stream” and crossover side of the label’s vibe. Both influences combined on his next album for the label, recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey in September and October 1972.

As with Afro Classic, Morning Star is most definitely not a small group recording. Don Sebesky’s arrangements surround Laws and his flute with both a combo and a full orchestra. Bob James’ electric piano features prominently alongside Dave Friedman on vibes, Billy Cobham on drums, and the indefatigable Ron Carter on bass. The orchestra, unlike on Laws’ previous session, features a full brass section in addition to winds and strings.

The title cut, composed by Rodgers Grant, straddles between the combo and full orchestra worlds, with an orchestral opening that’s almost reminiscent of some of Gil Evans’ work on Miles Ahead. The orchestra yields to Laws and James for extended solos, with Jack Knitzer’s bassoon and a full section of flutes providing unusual color in the accompaniment. When Laws recaps the melody at the end, he swoons into a different key altogether.

Laws’ “Let Her Go” opens as a slow bluesy ballad, stated simply with James, then Carter and Cobham. The strings join partway through the second statement of the melody, threatening to crescendo into a full orchestral verse, but instead fall away as Bob James leads a piano trio interpretation of the tune. The orchestra remains present but on a leash throughout the arrangement. Laws’ closing cadenza reminds us that despite his frequent crossovers into classical music, he still had a lot of blues in his core.

The great Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway tune “Where is the Love?” was completely inescapable in 1972, and true to form, Creed Taylor was fast on the heels of its number five Billboard Hot 100 peak and number one Billboard R&B peak to release an instrumental version of the song. The orchestral chart at the beginning feels a little slow, almost woozy, but an ecstatic solo by Laws takes the tempo up as he climbs into the stratosphere. James’ ensuing solo is accompanied by some Latin-inspired work on the cymbals by Cobham and glissandi in Ron Carter’s bass. The whole thing tempers the ecstasy of the original song with a sort of stately grace.

Laws’ “No More” sounds like a forgotten soul classic, especially when the backing vocals (including Laws’ wife Eloise) enter on the chorus. The first verse is taken by the combo who treat it as a modal jazz excursion, but the second verse is all Laws and orchestra, and his rhythmic and harmonic imagination is on full display as he solos over the ensemble. As far as I know, “No More” was never a hit in its own right and never covered, but samples from it appear on a J. Cole track from 2013 and an electronic remix by producer Bellaire in 2017.

Amazing Grace” opens with Laws in the low range of his instrument over a simple accompaniment by James. He takes the second verse in the middle range of the instrument with a bluesier tone, backed by the string orchestra, and the third verse at the highest range with a transparent shimmer of strings. An extended bridge steadily brings more orchestral voices to the fore under a steadily climbing flute solo, until Laws shifts keys and takes a solo descent. A pause, then James brings us back to the original key and Laws solos a verse over the low winds and strings. The arrangement ends as it began, with Laws’ low flute slowly fading out. It’s a showstopper.

Laws’ “What Do You Think of This World Now?” ends the record on a decidedly more ambivalent note. Interpolating bits of “America the Beautiful” around a sung verse that bemoans “hatred, strife and racial hypocrisy,” the orchestra plays the turmoil of the lyrics, slowly falling away to an obbligato by Carter, Cobham and James. Laws joins with the full band in a bluesier verse that gradually accelerates into the stratosphere, then fades behind a more hopeful verse “‘bout a kingdom that will not die/Where people won’t need to cry/When these problems have gone away/In Jehovah’s day.” Laws plays a coda with a bit of the bluesy melody, ending on a tone of resolution and hope.

Laws’ Morning Star is almost a Rosetta Stone for the artistic threads that Creed Taylor’s CTI Records stood for at this point, twenty-two releases into the label’s history, a heady brew of funky jazz with strains of classical and pop woven through in tight arrangements. There were still other flavors at work in the label’s alchemy, though, and we’ll hear some of those in next week’s selection when we check in again on Joe Farrell.

You can listen to the album here:

Freddie Hubbard, Sky Dive

Album of the Week, May 27, 2023

Sometimes when a streak is hot, you just keep riding it. That’s what happened with Freddie Hubbard in the early 1970s and his records on CTI. We’ve already heard three first class records in the series—Red Clay, Straight Life, and First Light rank among some of the finest records from the early 1970s. It turns out that Freddie had one more at this level in him.

Some changes were afoot in the personnel. By this time in 1972, Herbie Hancock was touring with his Mwandishi group, promoting extraordinary odysseys in jazz sound (that hopefully we’ll review one day), so Keith Jarrett (no relation, as far as we know) joined in on piano. And Billy Cobham was in for Jack DeJohnette on drums, hinting at the jazz fusion sound that is featured on the album. Otherwise, most of the rest of the crew from First Light was on board, including Don Sebesky, who continued as arranger. The conception of the album is a little different from First Light, though; where the earlier album ran for five tracks, foregrounded strings and woodwinds, and embraced pop and classical crossover sounds, this is a classic Hubbard record with four tracks, with a mix of originals, standards and a little period pop to round things out.

Povo” is a classic Freddie Hubbard fusion blues that sounds like it was filtered through early Funkadelic—complete with a spoken word narration at the beginning that seems to be in a mix of Portuguese and English. Ron Carter’s bass groove is the heartbeat of this version, under a superior solo from Hubbard. Benson follows with an assertive statement, accompanied with subtlety by Sebesky’s orchestration for the first verse of the solo, and then kind of overwhelmed by the horn section on the second verse. But he keeps playing, never losing the groove, and passes over to Hubert Laws, who turns in a fiery statement before passing to Jarrett. This is not the Keith Jarrett of the Köln Concert — his solo is more of a tag on Laws’, a concisely funky articulation of the chords before he returns the flow to Hubbard and the orchestra who take the tune out. Check out the percussion under the final repetition of the chorus, courtesy of Airto and Ray Barretto.

Bix Beiderbecke’s “In a Mist” is an odd followup. The rhythm section feels a little like it’s stumbling over the changes for about the first minute as Hubbard plays a blearily dark solo. Everything comes together with the entrance of the winds at around the two minute mark, with a coherent statement of the melody in Keith Jarrett’s acoustic piano and a gearshift from the band into straight jazz that accelerates into a swinging statement of the tune. When Jarrett returns it’s to anchor that swinging moment, until Freddie returns with a statement of his angular solo beneath which Jarrett plays “out,” and the band restates the opening theme. It’s got real imagination, especially when Keith Jarrett’s piano steps to the fore, but I’m not at all sure the track hangs together.

The Godfather” is a more successful arrangement, starting with a stark unaccompanied statement from Hubbard and transitioning into a statement of the melody on a heavily reverbed bass, with quiet accompaniment by an anonymous voice and some work on the high hats by Cobham. The opening solo sustains a mysterious vibe for the first few minutes, then transitions into a faster swinging version of the theme with Jarrett, Hubbard, Cobham and Carter. The band is tight in this track, hanging closely behind Hubbard’s solo, which starts melancholy and turns blistering. The track closes out with a carefully constructed free-for-all, with Sebesky’s orchestra playing the waltz of the tune at top volume and Hubbard soloing like a house on fire above. It’s completely bananas and you have to hear it to believe it.

Closing out the album is the second Hubbard original, “Sky Dive, ” which is a more gentle funk groove introduced by Jarrett, Benson, Carter, Cobham and the percussionists. Hubbard and Laws then state the theme in a relaxed groove. Hubbard’s in no hurry to get to the solo, which doesn’t start until around the 2:40 mark, but when he hits it, it’s tight and groovy. “Sky Dive” gets in and gets out, which is a rare thing in Hubbard’s originals but which puts a fine punctuation point on this album.

Hubbard was remarkably consistent over the first four albums he made with CTI, and the sound is always immaculate. He could tear it up in live performance, as well, which we’ll hear soon. Next time, though, we check in with one of his collaborators on this album for something completely different.

You can listen to the album here:

Freddie Hubbard, First Light

Album of the Week, May 13, 2023

In the first two Freddie Hubbard albums that we’ve heard in our exploration of the CTI Records discography, we’ve heard straight-ahead small group jazz, though colored with fusion and jazz-funk. On First Light, his third outing as leader for CTI, his works take on a little more of the colors of Creed Taylor’s universe, with strings, pop music covers, classical arrangements, and casts of thousands, including Ron Carter, Hubert Laws, Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock, Airto, George Benson, joined by Phil Kraus on vibes and a 20 piece orchestra. Throughout it all soars his serene trumpet and flugelhorn, marking this record as undeniably Freddie despite the new ingredients.

The title track is a classic Hubbard composition, with a floating minor-key melody played by the bandleader across a repeating funk accompaniment. Hubbard’s form is without par throughout his solo, beginning with the achingly beautiful opening solo that precedes the first statement of the theme. Unusually for Hubbard, there is an interlude for Hubert Laws and strings in the middle of the first statement before Hubbard returns with the theme once more, then ventures into the solo proper. Here the motifs are more subtle than in some of his solos, featuring some extended passages played on a single note, one stretching as far as 16 bars and punctuated by a sting from the orchestra, which otherwise supports the sound without calling attention to itself. George Benson and Hubert Laws also have solo moments, but for the most part this one is all Freddie, and it fades out the last closing vamp of the music.

What comes back in is unexpected. Unlike the rest of the CTI stable, Hubbard had not really played much contemporary pop music on record, which makes his introductory notes to “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” even more startling. The Paul and Linda McCartney single made its first chart appearance on August 2, 1971, a mere six weeks before Hubbard entered the studio to record First Light, so this may have felt to the trumpeter like striking while the iron was hot. The work, legendarily cobbled together from three different proto-songs, is here played in three different styles: a pure ballad for the opening “we’re so sorry, Uncle Albert,” a funk-jazz voice on “Admiral Halsey notified me,” and an ecstatically free take on “hands across the water.” Throughout it all Hubbard and his band are foregrounded, with the orchestra adding only spots of color throughout. There are so many quotable moments throughout the arrangement, including Ron Carter’s mic-dropping solo halfway through as the rest of the orchestra falls away (later sampled by the Beastie Boys for 1992’s “Professor Booty”!). It’s an exciting and thoughtful arrangement, as striking today as it must have been in 1971.

Moment to Moment,” a quieter ballad by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, opens with a pensive dialog between Ron Carter’s bass and Hubert Laws’ flute, underscored by the string section. Hubbard plays the melody straight, but here the real star is Sebesky’s sensitive orchestration. He may have been notorious for working so fast that his scores were sometimes as unreadable as a physician’s handwriting, but at his peak there was no one better, as this track shows.

Yesterday’s Dreams” continues with the orchestra taking a more prominent role, as Hubbard, here playing a muted trumpet, states the melody of one of the few tracks credited to Sebesky as co-composer. Ron Carter’s bass is a prominent heartbeat throughout, with Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes adding a plaintive note. Hubert Laws and the woodwinds in the orchestra call to each other under the last bit of Hubbard’s solo, with Carter adding portamento to his bass obbligato as the track fades.

Lonely Town” is an unexpected conclusion to the album, with the woodwinds and strings stating the melody of the Leonard Bernstein show tune, then suddenly giving way to Herbie and Ron Carter laying down a groove under Hubbard’s flugelhorn, accompanied only by the lightest of cymbal work from DeJohnette. The second verse picks up steam and features a magnificent bit of improvisation from Hubbard with imaginative underpinnings by Herbie and Carter. At the end the orchestra has the final word, closing out the track with notes of pensiveness and hope.

Hubbard’s work on First Light shows the trumpeter evolving and growing, and gaining a new audience in the process. The trilogy of albums we’ve listened to so far, beginning with Red Clay and continuing with Straight Life, is brought to a natural conclusion here, with all facets of the trumpeter represented. While Hubbard would continue to record for CTI, this three-album stretch is arguably unequalled in his discography for excellence and range. We’ll listen to some of those later performances soon, but next week we’ll check in with another CTI veteran as he journeys into less-traveled realms.

You can listen to the album here:

Hubert Laws, Afro-Classic

Album of the Week, April 29, 2023

It’s hard to believe, but the four albums we’ve covered so far since the founding of Creed Taylor’s CTI label—Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, the Joe Farrell Quartet, and Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar, plus the earlier reviewed Bill Evans Montreux II— were all recorded in 1970. Taylor kept an incredibly busy recording and release schedule with engineer Rudy Van Gelder in the latter’s studies in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, and the label’s recordings in the first year were something of a who’s who of the early label. The last recording made in 1970 at Englewood Cliffs introduces another important artist on the CTI roster to this column, though it was actually his second recording for the label, as well as introducing another musical genre to the new label’s tapestry.

Flautist Hubert Laws was, by 1970, one of the most significant proponents of the jazz flute, having appeared on sessions with James Moody, Mongo Santamaria, Kai Winding, Bobby Timmons, Ron Carter, Chick Corea, Paul Desmond, Milt Jackson, and Quincy Jones, as well as on Joe Zawinul’s self-titled masterpiece and Herbie Hancock’s Fat Albert Rotunda. He had recorded his debut as leader, The Laws of Jazz, in 1964 (which we’ll review another time), and his recording Crying Song was the first official release on the CTI label. But his approach to the instrument was still evolving, and Afro-Classic revealed a new facet of Laws’ work, with the introduction of classical music to the recording.

The combination of jazz and classical was not new; Gunther Schuller had introduced the concept in a 1957 lecture that named the combination third stream. True to the concept, Afro-Classic includes pop music treated like classical and jazz, and classical treated like jazz and blues, all wrapped in the now-trademark CTI gatefold cover with a brilliant Pete Turner photo.

The opening track, a cover of James Taylor’s then four-month-old “Fire and Rain,” presents the tune almost as a rondo, with an opening statement that in retrospect anticipates the synth-flute in Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and echoes spiritual jazz practice, before Bob James’ electric piano presents the opening verse as a sonata. Ron Carter’s bass and Fred Watts’ drums (with an assist from Airto on percussion) then alter the template again, with a second statement of the melody as a blues groove. It all swirls together into a greasy, funky reverie, before returning to the more sonata-like form of the beginning and fading out on a revisitation of the groove. Don Sebesky is credited with arrangements on the album, but he keeps a light touch throughout.

From this opening, Laws pivots into a more pure classical approach with an arrangement of the Allegro from Bach’s Concerto No. 3 in D (BWV 1054). Except for the use of electric piano, and the addition of Gene Bertoncini’s acoustic guitar, the arrangement is taken straight, with a bassoon added to fill out the arrangement with some of the woodwind parts. The recording would not have been out of place on my childhood classical radio station—or as incidental music for one of the later Charlie Brown TV specials. In fact, I kept thinking about the score to “It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown,” which supplemented Vince Guaraldi’s iconic compositions with a Bach sonata for the characters in the department store scene.

The “Theme from Love Story” is likewise played “straight” for its opening, the theme—familiar to those who suffered through hours of easy-listening orchestral arrangements in the late 1970s—stated by Laws on the baritone flute. Sebesky’s arrangement is mercifully understated, allowing Laws’ gentle jazz inflections on the chorus to play out in counterpoint with the bassoon and acoustic guitar, before the entrance of Ron Carter’s bass pedal point signals a variation with a gentle Latin groove. The next verse digs deeper into this concept, with Laws and the percussionists creating a swirling minor-key soundscape over the grounding of Ron Carter’s bass and Bob James’ piano, before returning to a recapitulation of the melody. It’s a great example of Laws’ talent for beginning with familiar, unprepossessing melodies and taking them into highly interesting places.

Returning to Bach with “Passacaglia in C Minor” (BWV 582), the opening statement is sketched by Carter’s bass line, then elaborated by James with light accompaniment from the percussion. Laws and James trade the theme back and forth, effectively serving as the right and left hand of the keyboard part, before the ensemble chases the tune down to the tonic. Subsequent verses explore jazz improvisations on the theme, with increasingly strong jazz inflections, before a reverb-heavy flute solo and a grooved-out statement by James—in 6/8 time—take us over the edge into a modal workout. As the piece passes the ten-minute mark, Van Gelder and the musicians find some remarkable new tones, with arco cello, treated electric piano, and reverb-heavy flute noise swirling the melody into something like an exploration of inner space. The recapitulation of the theme is once more taken straight, re-grounding the work in the original composition. It’s a masterful unification of the differing approaches to music on the album into a single artistic statement.

The album concludes with Mozart’s “Flute Sonata in F” (K.13), which—like the Bach Allegro—could be mistaken for a classical recital but for the prominent bass and James’ electric piano. Coming after the phantasmagoria of “Passacaglia,” it’s a cheeky punctuation point on an album that quietly upsets any pre-conceived notions the listener might have regarding the lines of separation between jazz and classical music.

Laws brought a significant new stream of influence to CTI with this record, one that he and other performers on the label would revisit throughout the rest of its run. We’ll hear from Laws, and classical influences again. In the meantime, if you are intrigued by his approach to jazz flute, you might want to check out my Exfiltration Radio show “Flute’n the Blues.”

You can listen to the album here:

Wes Montgomery, Road Song

Album of the Week, April 1, 2023

Though still technically under the banner of A&M Records, Creed Taylor’s CTI had already firmly established its visual identity by the late 1960s, as we saw with last week’s look at Wave. Today we explore some of the development of its sound by looking at the twelfth record in the catalog, a posthumous release from guitarist Wes Montgomery.

Montgomery had begun his career in the late 1940s with Lionel Hampton, having taught himself the guitar at night while working during the day for the milk company. When the big band gig didn’t pan out, he returned to working day jobs while forming a combo with his brothers and playing small clubs. He was discovered in 1958 by Cannonball Adderley, who recommended to Orrin Keepnews that he sign Montgomery to his Riverside Records label. Montgomery went on to record a well regarded string of albums on Riverside before leaving in 1963 for Verve to record with Creed Taylor.

Taylor saw the potential for Montgomery’s clean, melodic style to cross over into the instrumental pop market and recorded a series of albums that established him as a bankable star, beginning with Movin’ Wes and including the great Bumpin’, which featured the guitarist with one of the great over the top ‘60s pop string sections on the title track. The orchestra on this recording was arranged by Don Sebesky. We’ll hear a lot about Sebesky over the course of these reviews; for now I’ll just observe that this is the first name in this column that I first saw in a Boston Pops program.

So it was that, following a string of recordings for Verve that include some great small group sessions with Jimmy Smith and a lot of instrumental pop, Montgomery recorded several sessions for Taylor’s sub-label CTI, leading off the label’s discography with A Day in the Life and returning to Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs studio on May 7 and 8, 1968 to record this album. Just over a month later he was dead, having suffered a heart attack at home in Indianapolis at the age of 45. Was the final recording he made in his lifetime worthy of his legacy?

I think it kind of depends on how you look at it. A jazz session it’s not, and it’s not the best instrumental pop he ever recorded either. Sebesky’s arrangement on “Bumpin’” is so legendary that it led off a 1990s Verve compilation of “acid jazz.” The arrangements on Road Song, alas, are not quite so stunning. Montgomery’s guitar does not quite engage with the strings and horns and harpsichord(!) around him. But the band that Taylor assembled here is no group of slouches, with Herbie Hancock, drummer Grady Tate, pianist Hank Jones (that’s him on the harpsichord), and the great bassist Richard Davis joining the strings. The overall effect is pleasant enough, though it must be said that the main pleasures of the album are Montgomery’s legendary touch with the guitar and not the setting Taylor puts him in.

So far we’ve heard the more instrumental pop, almost easy listening side of the CTI label. We’ll hear a very different sound next time, one that would come to dominate the way the label was perceived—and change the course of jazz as it entered the 1970s.

You can listen to the album here: