Hubbard’s 1961 Breakout Album A Stunner

hubbard-cover

HUB CAP / HUBBARD: Hub Cap. Luana. Osie Mae. Earmon Jr. WESTON: Cry Me Not. WALTON: Plexus (2 tks) / Freddie Hubbard, tpt; Julius Priester, tbn; Jimmy Heath, t-sax; Cedar Walton, pn; Larry Ridley, bs; Philly Joe Jones, dm / Blue Note 072435423025

My friend Jack Walrath, who is very fussy about fellow-trumpeters, one told me that he always felt a little sorry for Freddie Hubbard coming up at a time when Miles Davis, who he also liked, ruled the roost. Hubbard wasn’t part of any specific cutting edge jazz band at the time, but he was without question one of the most exciting and original trumpeters of his time. This album, recorded at the Rudy van Gelder studio in Hackensack, NJ in April 1961, was a rare outing for Hubbard on Blue Note. For those unfamiliar with “real” Blue Note albums (ever since Warner Jazz took it over they’ve reissued a bunch of jazz records never produced by Alfred Lion under the Blue Note logo), they always tended towards the bluesy and funky. Lion liked his jazz that way and, as critics used to say, “Alfred and Francis (Wolff) only record what they like.”

Hubbard was never really a “funky-butt” jazz artist, but as this album proves he could play that style. Yet this is hard bop with a difference, and that difference is greater harmonic fluidity in both the tune construction (all but one piece was written by Hubbard) and the solos. Hubbard, here still a young buck, seems to be channeling his inner Clifford Brown, so logical in construction is each and every solo. Interestingly, Jimmy Heath is entirely on his wavelength, listening carefully to what Hubbard is doing or has done and tailoring his solo to the leader’s style. By contrast, trombonist Julian Priester—though very good—shows off how well he has absorbed J.J. Johnson.

But what I found very interesting about this session as a whole is just how good everyone was in context. Having just reviewed Sonny Rollins’ 1986 album, Falling in Love With Jazz, I was puzzled anew by how disconnected, or at least locked into their own little worlds, everyone on the Rollins album sounded compared to the way everyone on this session is so together. Jazz musicians use that word to denote a tightness of ensemble and particularly a oneness of rhythm, but I would extend it further here to indicate just how locked in everyone is to Hubbard’s vision at this time. One of the more interesting pieces on this album is Randy Weston’s Cry Me Not, a ballad with fluid, moving harmonies and a lovely but quirky melody. Why hasn’t this little gem become a jazz standard? Perhaps not enough people have heard it in order to love it as much as I do. Note, too, how Hubbard breaks free of the tune’s constraints in the middle to play an extempore, high-range cadenza of scintillating brilliance. Small wonder that Ornette Coleman hired him at about this same time to be part of the “double quartet” that recorded his lengthy improv session, Free Jazz.

In one of his own tunes, Luana, you hear the real Freddie Hubbard break out at one point, playing one of those double-time triplet licks for which he would become famous. Yet in much of this piece he seems to be emphasizing the high range, a bit of jazz-club showmanship he was not normally prone to do. Perhaps this was Alfred Lion’s suggestion. On this track, too, Heath plays tenor with the same kind of flat, vibratoless sound for which Sonny Rollins was already famous, and though his style is more hard bop-oriented he is at least attempting to fit in with the surrounding material. Priester follows with an unusual (for him) muted solo emphasizing lyrical construction over Johnson’s machine gun-like style. Cedar Walton’s solo also has less notes than usual, but everything he plays is meaningful and delightful. Larry Ridley’s bass solo is also sparse but swinging, backed by the superb drumming of Philly Joe Jones. (Show of hands for those of you who are, like me, huge Philly Joe fans.)

Osie Mae has an unusual shuffle rhythm, a bit like the beat that Jan Savitt capitalized on during the Swing Era except with a bit more of a modern dialect about it. This shifts to a straight 4 for Hubbard’s solo, another great outing which here seems more Dizzy Gillespie-oriented than biased towards Brownie. One of the things I always liked about Hubbard was his tone, full and rich no matter how far out his improvisations were. Heath’s solo here has a shade more juice in his tenor tone, and as in the opening track he paraphrases some of what Hubbard just played and builds on it. Once again Walton puts some space in his solo, although here he is not quite as inventive as in other tracks.

In the issued take of Walton’s Plexus, a tune built around a sequence of oddly-placed bass notes, the band grabs hold of the unusual structure and flies with it. Here, too, the trumpet, sax and trombone play triad chords, something they don’t do on most of the other pieces. (Sometimes I wonder why a jazz band would have three such solo voices and not use them in interesting scored passages exploiting their timbres.) This time it is Heath who leads off, followed by the trombonist, the pianist and then the leader, who is absolutely blistering. Earmon Jr. is a medium-tempo swinger built around a staccato rhythmic pattern at the beginning. It’s not very distinguished melodically but it doesn’t have to since it exists primarily as a showcase for the soloists. Ironically, they are all good but not really great on this piece, which seems to be much more of a genial session finale. Everyone sounds relaxed here, but that’s the problem; there’s no “juice” to the proceedings. I think Blue Note should have programmed it second from the end, wrapping up the album with the issued version of Plexus. Happily, that is how this CD ends, with an alternate take of the Walton tune. It’s equally as exciting as the issued version if a little less tight in ensemble; Heath nicely balances lyricism with rhythmic drive in his solo, though in his last chorus he is just coasting on changes, possibly a reason this take was rejected. Priester and Walton are very interesting, though Hubbard seems a bit less intense. He plays well, but not with quite the same fire until the second chorus.

If you are a Freddie Hubbard fan and don’t have this album in your collection, you need to get it. It’s a prime example of just how good he was even as a young man, showing far more than just ordinary promise.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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