Freddie Hubbard, Straight Life

Album of the Week, May 6, 2023

Hubert Laws’ Afro-Classic may have been the last album recorded for CTI Records in Rudy Van Gelder’s studios in 1970, but it was not the last album recorded in 1970 to be released. A month before Laws’ session, Freddie Hubbard returned to the studio where he had previously cut the instant classic Red Clay for a follow-up session. Again featuring Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and “Pablo” Landrum, the session also saw the addition of Jack DeJohnette on drums, Weldon Irvine on tambourine, and George Benson on guitar. Together the band recorded a session that was more spontaneous, took more risks, and ultimately may have been more successful than its predecessor.

The album opens with the title track, and it’s immediately arresting, with Hubbard’s fierce articulation of a rapidly tongued fanfare alternating with eruptions from DeJohnette. The tune then abruptly swings into a Latin-tinged funk groove, anchored by Herbie’s Fender and Ron Carter’s bass line, which alternates arpeggiated fifths, octaves and diminished sevenths. Joe Henderson takes the first solo, playing bold runs and then repeating the theme in ascending keys. This session was recorded a few months after his 1970 legendary live session for Milestone, which was released as If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem,” and he is at the top of his improvisatory game here, transitioning seamlessly from ferocious runs into more serene reflections before handing over to Hubbard. Freddie’s trumpet tone was flawless at this point, pivoting from relaxed, precisely articulated runs to screaming blues shouts within a few bars. Along the way the music slips out of the funky groove into a more abstract utterance, then quietly returns to the groove with the burble of Herbie’s solo. He begins by taking a key from Freddie’s solo, but then takes off in a more abstract direction, playing against the rhythm and finally landing in time for George Benson to pick up the thread. You can hear players shouting encouragement behind Benson’s solo, as his soul-inflected licks shift into funk, then like Herbie shift out of time for sixteen bars or so before crashing back into the rhythm of the groove. The band then locks into the groove as DeJohnette and Landrum trade polyrhythms underneath. Hubbard returns with a high keening line that echoes his opening statement before bringing the volume down for a restatement of the theme. If certain performances of “Red Clay” leave one with the impression that Hubbard had given his all and could not possibly play more, “Straight Life”’s insistent groove and the fade-out insist that he could keep playing all day.

Weldon Irvine’s “Mr. Clean” follows. A grimier funk workout that sees the bass clinging to the tonic like a life raft, the horns call to mind a James Brown line before Freddie makes like Miles with a high lonesome call, as George Benson and Herbie Hancock trade licks beneath. Joe Henderson’s solo explores the tonality of the theme in an abstract workout as the band digs deeper into the groove. Van Gelder’s engineering here is amazing as the bass seems to deepen the further out Henderson goes, followed by Hancock, who innovates both in rhythm and in tonality. Hancock’s solo continues after Henderson drops back, continuing to echo into outer space yet still rooted in the groove. Benson’s solo is similarly deep, bridging over from soul to funk to abstraction in the same breath. Throughout the rhythm section of DeJohnette and Carter stay locked into the groove.

For the final track, a rendition of the Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke standard “Here’s That Rainy Day,” Freddie switches to the flugelhorn. In a 1973 interview, he noted that he had been playing the more mellow cousin of the trumpet for “about three or four years” (though his earliest recording credit on the instrument came on 1967’s Backlash). He claimed in the interview, “Now I can play it better than the trumpet, because it’s so much easier to play.” The creamy tone of his flugelhorn became one of Freddie’s signature sounds, and here it is put to superb use in a stripped down setting, recording the ballad with sensitive accompaniment from Benson on the guitar, for an effect that is reminiscent of “Why Was I Born?,” the duet that Coltrane recorded with Kenny Burrell on their 1962 collaboration. Hubbard closes the track with a long coda that seems to float effortlessly and eternally.

This second Hubbard album on CTI established his role as a leader among the label’s artists, and he would continue to record groundbreaking sets throughout the next few years. We’ll hear another, very different one next time.

You can listen to the album here:

Freddie Hubbard, Red Clay

Album of the Week, April 8, 2023

We’ve heard one side of Creed Taylor’s new CTI label in the past few weeks as we listened to how he brought impeccable personnel and lush orchestrations to bear on Antônio Carlos Jobim’s Wave and Wes Montgomery’s Road Song. What we will hear today is something else: a record with no strings, just five players in the studio stretching out into loose 7 to 12 minute long jams. And at the center is a player we’ve heard from before: Freddie Hubbard.

Before this point, we’ve mostly encountered Hubbard as a sideman, in some of the great early recordings of both Herbie Hancock (Takin’ Off, My Point of View, Maiden Voyage) and Wayne Shorter (Speak No Evil, The All Seeing Eye). But at the same time that these recordings were happening, he had a productive and prolific career as a leader, recording nine sessions for Blue Note, three for Atlantic, and two for Impulse! between 1960 and 1969. Most of these sessions are classic hard bop or post bop, with Hubbard’s fiercely precise tone at the center of them. But in January 1970, Hubbard entered Rudy Van Gelder’s studio at Englewood Cliffs to make a different sort of session, his first for CTI. He was joined by a formidable lineup of players: Herbie Hancock on electric piano and Hammond organ, Ron Carter on bass, Joe Henderson on tenor sax, and the young Lenny White on drums.

White was no novice, having already appeared on Miles’ fusion masterpiece Bitches Brew, but he was only 20 years old and still getting started. He has noted that it’s something of a miracle that he was on the session at all; apparently Hubbard had originally called Tony Williams to do the record, but Williams begged off, citing Miles’ growing irritation at the number of players who recorded with “his” rhythm section to make their albums sound good. So White got the call. He would continue to record with Miles following this record (as we’ve heard on Champions), so apparently the decision was a good one for all concerned.

It’s hard to imagine the finished product without White’s drums at the center. The title track, which opens the album, is a funky jam that’s kept tight by Ron Carter’s insanely earworm-y bass line and at the same time kept loose by White’s drumming, which seem equally informed by Tony Williams’ inventions and Clyde Stubblefield’s “funky drummer” approach on the records James Brown was making at the time. The tune, supposedly based on the changes to “Sunny,” circles around the same changes for the entirety of the 12+ minute song, trading chordal complexity for the pure joy of the jam. Especially notable here are the solos from the two horns, with Hubbard hitting effortless highs and Henderson bringing a level of darkness and complexity to his solo that is reminiscent of some of his own early 1970s masterpieces. At 9 minutes in, the rest of the players and Carter and White take us into the engine room to unveil the heart of the groove. It’s a complete lesson in the power of the bass in funk-jazz music, and one that features prominently on my mix highlighting jazz bassists, “the low end theory.”

Delphia” starts out as a ballad with a sensitive introduction by Hubbard and Henderson (on flute), but soon morphs into a swinging blues. Unusually, Herbie Hancock plays Hammond organ on the entirety of the tune, which includes some wonderful syncopation on the chorus and some attentive accompaniment behind Hubbard’s solo. Henderson’s flute, only heard on the opening and closing verses, is brilliantly sensitive here, as is Carter’s bass.

Suite Sioux” opens with a riff by Hancock on the Fender Rhodes, leading into the opening statement of the theme by Henderson and Hubbard. This arrangement is notable for both the use of space—the dialog between Fender and horns is set off by ample beats of silence each time—and Hubbard’s eloquent solo. Hancock’s solo floats over White’s cymbal work until the drummer steps up to his own solo spotlight, highlighting one of the oddities of the recording: the bass drum, which has very little resonance and sounds as though it’s stuffed full of socks. Apparently the young drummer had brought his own kit, which included a bass drum that had been cut down from an oil can; while he preferred the resonant sound, Van Gelder couldn’t or wouldn’t get it to record in the studio, so they had to use another drum that White couldn’t stand but at least didn’t overshadow the rest of the band.

The Intrepid Fox” returns to the fiery material of the opening for another extended jazz-funk jam. Another cut that would, like “Red Clay,” be a highlight of Hubbard’s live sets for years to come, this one is less groove oriented and more incendiary, and features a wicked groove from the bass together with a complex interlocking melodic statement from the horns. In some ways reminiscent of Henderson’s recently recorded “Power to the People” and “Isotope,” the saxophonist’s solo on this tune threatens to steal the show as he plays with rhythmic and chordal structures throughout. Hancock’s solo takes us into slightly more meditative territory, until Hubbard returns with a reprise of the melody.

The record as a whole was a hit for Hubbard and for the young CTI label, and helped to shape some of the sound of the coming decade. We’ll hear a lot more from Freddie in the coming weeks. But first we’ll hear from some other Miles-adjacent musicians exploring a slightly different side of the electric jazz future.

You can listen to the album here:

Miroslav Vitouš, Infinite Search

Album of the Week, September 10, 2022

We’ve been spending a lot of time with the members of Miles’ different groups in this thread. At first glance, the debut solo album of the Czech bassist Miroslav Vitouš would seem an odd fit. But there are a few reasons it’s the album of the week this week: there is substantial overlap with Miles’ sidemen, and because of what is coming next.

For his debut album on Embryo Records, Vitouš assembled an impressive list of musicians: Joe Henderson on tenor sax, John McLaughlin on guitar, Herbie Hancock on electric piano, and Jack DeJohnette on drums (all except the last track, where Joe Chambers fills in). The recording was made October 8, 1969, several months after the Wayne Shorter sessions for Super Nova, on which McLaughlin and DeJohnette both played. But the sound they produce here, absent Shorter’s soprano saxophone, is very different. I should say sounds, because each of the six tracks on the album inhabits a different soundscape.

We’ve already heard Miles’ take on “Freedom Jazz Dance,” on his Miles Smiles. Here, after the introduction by the full band, Vitouš takes an extended bass solo accompanied only by DeJohnette, with interjections by McLaughlin on guitar. A solo by Herbie Hancock follows, with the chiming Fender sound climbing up into the upper octaves, followed by McLaughlin’s solo, over an increasingly frantic rhythm section. When Henderson enters, Hancock and McLaughlin drop out and the frenetic energy lessens, but only slightly before he takes his own frantic turn. Closing out with the theme, Vitouš and Hancock turn the reprise into an extended coda.

Mountain in the Clouds” foregrounds Vitouš and DeJohnette in a short fragment of a composition, as if to assert the bass’s primacy as a melodic instrument. It works, but is so brief the tune never fully develops.

When Face Gets Pale” is another bass-led melody with chordal support from Hancock entwined by McLaughlin’s twisting guitar lines. The composition circles the same chord progression over and over again, creating a meditative mood.

Infinite Search” is the track on the album that feels closest to what we’ve heard before. Here the dominant tone is Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes, in duet with Vitouš’s deep bass lines. Together they produce music that reaches both up to the heavens on clouds of Echoplexed reverb and down deep into the earth, grounded by the deep roots of the bass and supported by a two note repeated figure as a ground throughout. The composition wouldn’t have been out of place on Water Babies, and is insistently memorable.

I Will Tell Him On You” is introduced by a theme by Henderson in diffuse clouds of chords from Hancock, which is then elaborated by Vitouš before Henderson returns in a swirling solo, using a technique that he returned to throughout his recording career. If Coltrane had “sheets of sound,” rapidly descending arpeggios, Henderson had whirlpools of sound that circled the tonal center. This effect can be heard to good effect here. McLaughlin follows, neatly mimicking Henderson’s technique before adding flourishes and bent notes that claim the ground as his own. Herbie’s piano solo elaborates the theme with the chiming upper octaves of the Fender before DeJohnette takes a crashing, rolling drum solo. The reprise is followed by a coda by McLaughlin and Hancock. It’s a bracing performance.

Epilogue” is opened by an extended bass solo from Vitouš, supported by Hancock and a bed of chimes and drums. The mood continues through a solo by Hancock, never losing the mystery, until it disappears into a cloud of chimes.

So with his first solo album, Vitouš demonstrated his compatibility with the players in Miles’ orbit who were moving fusion forward, while also proving his own voice. Next time we’ll hear another musician claiming his own leading role in the new sound.

You can listen to Infinite Search here:

Herbie Hancock, Fat Albert Rotunda

Album of the Week, August 27, 2022

In 1969, NBC aired a half hour television special based on the stand-up comedy of Bill Cosby. Focused on Cos’ stories of his childhood in Philadelphia, the special, called Fat Albert and Friends, was a low-budget affair, with the animators drawing directly onto the cels with grease pencils and using actual photographs of the streets of Philadelphia for backgrounds. While the special inspired the later Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids series, it has languished in the vaults since its release.

As Cos would say, I told you that story so I could tell you this one. Because, while the budget for the special was low, it featured a soundtrack by Herbie Hancock that stands as an early milestone of jazz-funk.

Herbie hadn’t been idle since leaving Miles’ quintet. He had already recorded The Prisoner, a concept album for Blue Note with a large group of players that included Joe Henderson on sax, Johnny Coles on flugelhorn, Garnett Brown on trombone, Hubert Laws on flute, Buster Williams on bass, and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums. The album, his final Blue Note recording, features the same core group (minus Laws) that came together on Fat Albert Rotunda, but featured a very different sound.

The opening track, “Wiggle-Waggle,” underscores the difference. With a blast of horns over a jangling guitar for an opening fanfare, it quickly moves into a tight, funky chart over a fat bass line that would not be out of place on a James Brown record. The core group here was augmented by a large group of session players, uncredited on the original release but including Joe Farrell on saxophone and the mighty Bernard Purdie on drums. (We’ll write more about Joe Farrell soon.) Anchoring the swirling chart is the Fender Rhodes of Herbie Hancock.

Hearing this recording, it’s hard to believe that Herbie initially approached the electric piano reluctantly. The chunky sound of the Fender in the opening track seems made for this new jazz-funk sound. It also provides most of the improvisatory energy; most of the horns stay in the charts for the whole track. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the compositional technique that Miles’s quintet began to adopt on Nefertiti, with the core group bookending relatively brief solos with frequent reprises of the main melody, surfaces again here, where it is more easily recognizable as pop-music style verse-chorus-verse writing.

The album continues throughout in this accessible vein, resulting in some of the most remarkably joyous music to come from Herbie’s pen to date. “Fat Mama” is a slow crescendo of a track building from another Buster Williams bass line and foregrounding Herbie’s piano and some rare flute work by Joe Henderson against the horns. “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” might be the most inspired cut on the album, with Johnny Coles’ flugelhorn opening setting the stage for a tender ballad, while “Tootie” Heath’s brisk drum work keeps the heartbeat of the song moving as the excitement of the bedtime story builds and recedes. “Oh! Oh! Here He Comes!” is another funk workout, serving as a theme for Fat Albert.

The one tune that entered Hancock’s repetoire longer-term is the ballad “Jessica,” here given a relatively lugubrious treatment thanks to the thick horn arrangements. He would later revisit this tune in the late 1970s with an acoustic group—we’ll hear that album another time—that stripped away some of the heavy chord voicings to reveal a plaintive melody. Here, after the tender opening, the tune drags—there is simply too much going on in the chart. It regains life in the solo, though, as Herbie uses acoustic piano for the only time on the album in a simple trio setting to explore the melody.

Shifting gears once again, the title track revisits the themes in “Oh! Oh! Here He Comes” as a funk-inflected march, with a blistering sax solo from Joe Henderson providing additional urgency. The set closes with “Little Brother,” a jovial jazz-funk workout for the same extended set of players as the opening track. Featuring some tasty guitar work throughout by the uncredited Eric Gale and Billy Butler and solos by Farrell and Herbie over Purdie’s legendary “Purdie Shuffle,” the track is a fitting romp to an unexpectedly rich and playful album.

Herbie has publicly said that he made Fat Albert Rotunda as the first album for his Warner Brothers contract to give him the artistic freedom to make more adventurous music. Perhaps. It’s undeniable that the follow up albums, Mwandishi and Crossing, are completely different and serve more as spiritual successors to In a Silent Way than to this album. (We’ll hear another album in that lineage from a different member of Miles’ quintet next time.) Still, it’s hard to hear Fat Albert Rotunda as anything but an expression of joy in music-making, however commercial it may be.

You can listen to the album here: