[JPL] 'Taps' for Freddie Hubbard By WILL FRIEDWALD

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Sat Jan 3 13:59:43 EST 2009


'Taps' for Freddie Hubbard

In the 70 years that he was with us, Freddie Hubbard, who died on Dec. 29,
was known primarily for one thing: playing the trumpet harder, faster and
with more pure chops than virtually anyone else who ever picked up the horn.
Hubbard was regaled as the most prolific, the most prodigious, the most
celebrated, and probably the longest-lasting trumpet king of what came to be
known as the hard bop era, performing a style of jazz that has exerted a
disproportionately large influence on the young jazzmen of the Marsalis
generation and beyond.

Yet over the course of his productive career, the iron-lipped Mr. Hubbard
did a great many things brilliantly: He was working with avant-garde
musicians (John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy) almost from the
beginning, and later made a pile for himself in the burgeoning field of
jazz-rock fusion; he could play ballads with exquisite, heart-breaking
tenderness; as a composer, he had an extraordinary track record of tunes
that were widely played (and even sung) by other musicians. He did a lot of
things but still remained known for playing hard-bop or soul-jazz style
trumpet better than almost anybody.

Mr. Hubbard became the last-standing representative of the school of jazz
trumpeters that began with Clifford Brown (1930-56). Of all the stylistic
eras and instruments of jazz, trumpeters from that era seemed to have the
most difficult time of it; many of Hubbard's contemporaries -- including
Woody Shaw, Lee Morgan and Booker Little -- died tragically young, some
violently. Even though Hubbard was the only member of this elite group to
live into his late 40s and beyond, his career also was curtailed by severe
troubles, both personal and professional.

To be blunt, owing to various causes that all fall under the larger umbrella
of hard living, Mr. Hubbard had essentially lost his lip by the early '90s
-- he more or less admitted as much in a 1995 interview in Downbeat. Even
though I had heard him live a number of times in the last 15 years of his
life, I still don't feel like I really heard him.

Fortunately, his recorded legacy of the '60s and '70s is compensatingly
strong. In 1965, Mr. Hubbard brought his working band into a now-forgotten
club in Brooklyn and invited fellow Jazz Messenger Lee Morgan to join him.
Blue Note issued the results on a widely acclaimed two-LP set titled "The
Night of the Cookers" in which everything -- the dual-trumpet format, the
extra-long tunes (one per LP side, about 20 minutes each), the title --
promised not just a jam session but a cutting contest, in which two of the
most fearsome brassmen of their generation would slice each other to
ribbons. There are moments when that happens, to be sure. But most of the
time, Hubbard and Morgan are working with each other rather than against
each other.

The Latin-styled standard "Pensativa" is a convenient example, because
Morgan opens the tune playing muted, which makes it easy to distinguish
between the two. When Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard play together, Morgan's
tone is slightly lower, Mr. Hubbard's slightly sharper and more biting, and
they briefly reprise a stock Clifford Brown lick (a quote from Jimmy Van
Heusen's "All This and Heaven Too"). It's a long, almost rhapsodic interlude
-- part of the time they're like two accomplished dancers doing an intricate
routine together, like the Nicholas Brothers, but sometimes it's a duel to
the death. Call it a pas-de-duel.

"Cookers" stands out because it's not like any of the other 15 or so classic
albums Mr. Hubbard recorded in the 1960s, beginning with his debut as a
leader in "Open Sesame." (His first-ever recording was done three years
earlier, in his home town of Indianapolis, as a sideman with fellow
Naptowner Wes Montgomery.) Mostly made for Blue Note Records, Mr. Hubbard's
most revered recordings utilize the general approach perfected by Art
Blakey's Jazz Messengers (with whom Hubbard worked for most of the early
'60s): Emotionally driven extended solos are set within a tight
compositional framework, allowing the composer (usually Mr. Hubbard himself)
and the improvisor to work together without one overshadowing the other.

In 1966 and 1967, Mr. Hubbard made two albums for Atlantic, "Backlash"
(which contains his two most famous songs, the waltz "Up Jumped Spring" and
the delicately Latinate "Little Sunflower") and "High Blues Pressure," which
are almost more Blue Note-y than most of his Blue Note albums.

But what's really surprising is that many of his so-called fusion albums of
the 1970s (made for CTI and Columbia) hold up very well. Here, Mr. Hubbard
blends his long-perfected hard-bop style (now being called "soul jazz") with
overtly "commercial" elements, which vary between old-school pop (strings)
and new-style rock (electronics). In this era, his funky "Red Clay" caught
on with audiences and fellow musicians alike. Mr. Hubbard balanced such
market-driven projects with the deliberately experimental "Sing Me a Song of
Songmy," an outlandish concoction by Turkish composer Ilhan Mimaroglu that
sounds like Milton Babbitt and Stockhausen getting together with John Lennon
and Yoko Ono to do a remake of "Bitches Brew."

Yet even during the height of the fusion era, Mr. Hubbard did some of the
best straight-ahead playing of his career with the supergroup known as VSOP.
In the '60s, he had been called upon to stand in for Miles Davis in several
classic albums by his sidemen, like Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage" and
Wayne Shorter's "The All-Seeing Eye." And 10 years later, VSOP recruited Mr.
Hubbard to play the trumpet role in a reformed edition of Davis's classic
mid-'60s quintet, with Mr. Hancock, Mr. Shorter, bassist Ron Carter and
drummer Tony Williams.

The VSOP performances were not exactly Mr. Hubbard's last hurrah, but they
were among his final great sessions in the acoustic modern jazz setting that
made him a star to begin with. Toward the end of his life, he began working
with the New Jazz Composer's Octet led by trumpeter David Weiss, as on the
2001 album "New Colors," which allowed him to concentrate on his writing
rather than trying to recapture past pinnacles as a player. His most recent
album, "On the Real Side" -- released a few months ago -- amounts to a
testimonial to himself, a final bow. Freddie Hubbard didn't exactly go out
on a high note, but, rather, on the right one.

Mr. Friedwald writes about jazz for the Journal.

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