Saturday, December 19, 2009

Rediscovery: The Freddie Hubbard And Woody Shaw Sessions

On the eve of the first anniversary of trumpet great Freddie Hubbard’s death (December 29, 2008), it seems appropriate to pay tribute to this master who achieved much greatness during the latter half of the twentieth century. I miss his presence in the world and the sad fact that he can no longer contribute his very pleasurable music for our enjoyment.

Freddie Hubbard sometimes joked how he played with all of the jazz greats and, while of course he had, he had also jettisoned into significance on some of jazz history’s most notable recordings; namely, Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, Oliver Nelson’s The Blues And The Abstract Truth (“Stolen Moments”), Coltrane’s Africa/Brass, Olé Coltrane and, more remarkably, Ascension, Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch (and Outward Bound), Herbie Hancock’s Takin’ Off (with “Watermelon Man”), Empyrean Isles (with “Cantaloupe Island”) and Maiden Voyage and Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil. And all of this takes into consideration neither any of the session work the trumpeter was doing at the time nor the string of great Hubbard performances that could be heard on the albums of Art Blakey or Quincy Jones.

It’s a shame that Freddie Hubbard even had to remind us of his significance. In the sixties he recorded a slew of great post-bop records like Goin’ Up, Open Sesame and Ready For Freddie for the Blue Note label, as well as a few nice dates for Impulse! that let him stretch out a bit more.

By 1967, though, Hubbard switched over to the Atlantic label, experimenting more (or “selling out” to some) with infusing “soul” and “funk” into his playing. While the albums were critically rejected at the time, nearly all hold up especially well. Backlash, High Blues Pressure and The Black Angel are Hubbard’s best from his Atlantic period.

Then in 1970 Freddie Hubbard recorded some of his most memorable work at Creed Taylor’s CTI label, offering up the definitive Red Clay, the excellent Straight Life, the Grammy Award winning First Light, Sky Dive and the tremendous Keep Your Soul Together, not to mention headlining two live LPs recorded with Stanley Turrentine.

In 1974, Hubbard departed CTI for a multi-million dollar contract with the mighty Columbia Records, where he produced a great series of records through 1980 including High Energy, Liquid Love, Windjammer, Super Blue and The Love Connection. Unfortunately, these records were critically reviled and did not sell nearly as well as they should have (the majority of the Columbia albums were issued for the first time on CD in 2009 by Wounded Bird).

In the 80s, Freddie Hubbard operated as more of a free agent than before, recording prolifically – but not as consistently or as evenly as before. Still, he recorded a set of stirring live performances on Fantasy (A Little Night Music, Keystone Bop and Freddie Hubbard Classics - all recorded in November 1981) and a rousing 1983 straight-ahead date on Atlantic featuring Lew Tabackin, JoAnne Brackeen (!), Eddie Gomez and Roy Haynes (Sweet Return).

Then the revered Blue Note label re-formed in the mid-eighties, giving Freddie Hubbard yet another platform to prove – as if it was necessary (and, indeed, it was at the time) – that he hadn’t sold out.

Double Take - Freddie Hubbard/Woody Shaw (Blue Note, 1985): In what qualifies as one of the strangest pairings of all time – or some jazz-fan/marketing guy’s wet-dream – trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and doomed trumpeter Woody Shaw (who’s been gone for 20 years now!) were paired together for the first of two times in late 1985 on this remarkably wonderful sextet album. Woody Shaw was unquestionably one of the finest trumpeters of his generation. Always in the shadows of Miles Davis (c. 1950), Freddie Hubbard (c. 1965) and even, later, Wynton Marsalis, Shaw never deserved the second-rate status he got. He was a fiercely straight-ahead player who had waxed some definitive records of his own (namely Rosewood, Stepping Stones and Woody III - all on Columbia, home to Miles, Freddie – and even Wynton – at the time) and contributed some great music to the jazz lexicon, before and after his Columbia sojourn. Both trumpeters probably needed a high-profile gig like this at the time – and both seemed game enough to do something seemingly foolhardy like this. Strangely, it sounded pretty darned nice. Paired with a rhythm section of extraordinarily talented upstarts like reed player Kenny Garrett (who had recorded his solo debut album shortly before this with Shaw and the pianist here – and plays un-credited flute), pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Carl Allen, one can’t help feel the planets aligned for this great little straight-ahead fest. The program is mostly something a Blue Note celebration with Blue Note trumpet covers of tunes by Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham and Freddie Hubbard himself. Not a bad thing, but not a great thing. Tribute albums rarely become attributable themselves. The sound, caught by master recordist Rudy Van Gelder, is a little too clean, crystalline and crisp – Ajaxed jazz – a sound probably too much in vogue in this weird decade (as far as jazz is concerned). But what is captured here is definitely worth hearing, no matter how it was captured. The playing sounds a bit tentative at first. Still, the groove gives it gusto. This is a classic. Everybody is in good form here. And it’s a pleasure to listen to, repeatedly. Surprisingly, it’s not a cutting contest, but something where each of the leaders shares the front line in order to give it all to some surprisingly fine melodies. Hubbard’s “Hub Tones,” arranged particularly well by the album’s “arranger” Don Sickler, is the album’s sole highlight and makes it all worth every second. It makes for GREAT eighties jazz. And things get even better after this. Lee Morgan’s “Desert Moonlight,” “Just A Ballad For Woody” and Kenny Dorham’s “Lotus Blossom” remind you how wonderful straight-ahead jazz could be – even in the dark days of the eighties. Very, very few jazz guys can make jazz come this alive anymore. This is one to savor.

The Eternal Triangle - Freddie Hubbard/Woody Shaw (Blue Note, 1987): The second of two pairings of trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw didn’t seem very moving at the time, but it is probably the better of the two albums the duo made. Perhaps the familiarity of the tunes on the first set made that one more immediately appealing. Here, Hubbard provides his little-known Blue Note era tunes “Down Under” (from Art Blakey’s Mosaic) and “Nostrand And Fulton” (from Hubbard’s Here To Stay). Shaw provides his classic “The Moontrane” and “Tomorrow’s Destiny” to the program. Each serves the case of good jazz, but there is (a little) less of an effort to mine the depths of the Blue Note archives as obviously as before. Yes, the covers are by Sonny Stitt (the title track, originally from a 1957 Verve session), Lee Morgan (“Calling Miss Khadija”), Kenny Dorham (“Sao Paulo”) and Bud Powell (“Reets And I”). While there’s never a dull moment, the trumpeter’s take on the moody “Sao Paulo” is, perhaps, the album’s highlight, followed closely by “Down Under,” “Calling Miss Khadjia” and “Reets And I.” The Double Take grouping is reformed for this 1987 recording except bassist Cecil McBee is replaced here by Ray Drummond. Given that this was a studio assemblage and not a working group, it’s amazing the sense of cohesion and interplay the group achieves here. If the group’s initial outing was marked by some awkward or clumsy passages, this time they’re all on the same page – even the trumpeter’s have developed a nice chemistry here. The aura of timelessness is present here in this neo-bop setting that could have easily emanated from 1962 as it did from 1987. Part of the group’s success is getting caught marvelously in Rudy Van Gelder’s superb sound structure, less like the pin-drop perfection of Double Take and more like the sterling signature work he’s since done for so many labels like Criss Cross, Venus, HighNote and others.

The Freddie Hubbard And Woody Shaw Sessions (Blue Note, 1995): The two Freddie Hubbard-Woody Shaw albums had been long out of print – and, sadly, trumpeter Woody Shaw had also died in the interim – when Blue Note paired both albums together on a 1995 CD titled The Freddy Hubbard And Woody Shaw Sessions. By this time, even Freddie Hubbard’s pace had slowed down considerably due to the trumpeter suffering from a busted lip that made it excruciatingly difficult to play. So this double-disc CD set was a pleasant look back at two trumpet heroes at the very top of their game and a potent reminder of their shared significance to the jazz language and the musical lexicon. Like so many CDs that Blue Note issues, this one too quickly went out of print and now the few copies that can be found fetch big bucks. It’s a real shame because these two albums were made to be heard together – and they sound better with each passing year.

3 comments:

stringbender said...

I couldn't agree more - these sides are superb and should be made available again.

Anonymous said...

Double Take is one of my all time favorites. I own on cassette but wish I could buy the pair of CDs at a reasonable price. Even on casette the trumpet conversation and the sensuous musicality are amazing.

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