Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Freddie Hubbard on Columbia

Wounded Bird Records has rescued many lost, forgotten or neglected LPs - mostly from the 1970s - by licensing them from the original issuers - who would never touch this mostly unprofitable music - for release on CD. Unlike the majors who own most of the music the label issues, Wounded Bird retains all of the album's original artwork, credits and track line ups. While the label doesn't add extras like unissued tracks, alternative takes, new liner notes or historical assessments, it does an exceedingly fine job of mastering the music from the original tapes - or superb sources - and rightly takes pride issuing the albums the way a collector would want the music on CD.

On June 9 - according to - Wounded Bird will release six of the eight albums Freddie Hubbard made for Columbia Records between 1974 and 1980 (1975's Gleam has never been issued on LP or CD outside of Japan and 1978's Super Blue was issued on CD in 2007 by the seemingly defunct Mosaic Contemporary label) and two Hubbard compilations on CTI that appeared while Hubbard was recording for the Columbia label. That last sentence should properly end in an exclamation point. It's worth exclaiming.

This surprising announcement is welcome news to those who appreciate the great music Hubbard did for the label, most of which was critically lambasted and snubbed by all but a few at the time. This period of Hubbard's career, perhaps the last of his great run of records, is often dismissed or reviled by many today. Some go as far as to say that Hubbard's Columbia period makes his CTI period sound good.

Not me. This was some of the first Hubbard I ever heard, as I began buying jazz albums at the time his Columbia albums were initially released, and some of the finest. One LP in particular, Windjammer (1976), my first Hubbard purchase (when I obsessed about collecting anything with Bob James's name on it) remains my favorite Hubbard album of all time, even though I concede that he made many better, more artistic albums.

Simply put, this period contains some spectacular music. Hubbard rarely sounded as good as he did on his Columbia albums. As a player, he was at the very top of his game and he sounded in good form throughout. He is firmly in charge of the proceedings.

Even when the music was turned over to such arrangers as Dale Oehler, Bob James, (oddly) Bert DeCoteaux or Claus Ogerman, it was clear that it was Hubbard's choice - not some puppet-master producer's decision. Hubbard also lent quite a few memorable originals to these albums, some of which stayed in his repertoire long after he left the label. Here's a brief run-down of what's in store for CD buyers who will finally get the chance to have Freddie Hubbard's Columbia music on CD.

High Energy (1974): Freddie Hubbard left CTI Records in 1973, having become a much bigger star than most jazz players could ever hope to be, to sign a million-dollar contract with Columbia Records, long the home of Hubbard's hero and fellow trumpeter Miles Davis. In addition to the money, Hubbard sought more control of his music than CTI allowed him, and the opportunity to record with his own band rather than the all-star studio assemblages CTI forced upon him. For his first Columbia album, High Energy (1974), Hubbard did use his own band, a quintet that featured George Cables on piano and Junior Cook on tenor sax (both were also heard on Hubbard's final CTI album, Keep Your Soul Together), plus a collective sweetening of L.A. studio musicians, arranged with surprisingly minimal impact by Dale Oehler. There are two strong Hubbard originals here ("Baraka Sasa" and the album's single, "Crisis"), two excellent Cables originals (the Hubbard-like "Camel Rise," also arranged by Oehler for Bobby Hutcherson's 1975 album Montara, and the slightly well-known "Ebony Moonbeams," which Hubbard also covered on his Japanese-only live LP, Gleam, and Cables also performed on his 1975 solo debut as well as with Hutcherson on the vibist's 1979 album Un Poco Loco) and two Stevie Wonder tunes ("Too High" and the little-known "Black Maybe"). While the arrangements are more minimal than even those that Don Sebesky provided Hubbard at CTI, the electronics quotient is a little higher than usual here with Ian Underwood adding Headhunters-like synth effects (ala Patrick Gleeson), Hubbard employing echo effects and Cables on electric piano throughout. While Hubbard sounds especially strong here, very much in his element, the album never really rises above a genuinely engaging listening experience. But, in praise of the thing, it is a genuinely engaging listening experience.

Liquid Love (1975): CTI provided Freddie Hubbard with several crossover opportunities, one of which, "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" from 1971's First Light, even earned him a Grammy Award. But Liquid Love aims at some sort of crossover on Hubbard's own terms, something more of a "black music for black people" thing that Miles Davis wanted for On The Corner. This is the first of Hubbard's own albums that bears his own name as producer. Even the arrangements are from Hubbard or his pianist, George Cables. No orchestra here, but a lot of L.A. studio musicians are meant to either toughen up or soul-up the proceedings. The LP's odd programming finds the crossover material on side one - an odd-choice cover of Maria Muldaur's 1974 hit "Midnight at the Oasis" presages Miles's turn toward Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" a decade later, Hubbard's blaxploitation-like "Put It In The Pocket" (the album's single release) and Cables's rather indistinct "Lost Dreams," which the pianist revived on a 1991 Steeplechase CD - and Hubbard's more obvious menu on side two: the almost R&B take of "Liquid Love," harking back to Hubbard's Atlantic period, Benny Golson's "Yesterday's Thoughts" and Hubbard's own "Kuntu." The thirteen-minute "Kuntu," which Hubbard recorded live the month before on his Japan-only album Gleam, is the album's centerpiece, with Hubbard electrifying his horn - still sounding like no one else but him! - and good, long solos from Carl Randall, Jr. (?) on sax and Buck Clark or Myuto (sic: Mayuto)Correa (?) on congas. People either love or hate the fishy illustration on the cover of Liquid Love. Famed designer Storm Thorgerson thinks it's one of the 100 best album covers of all time. I like it too - particularly the awesome typography - but it's unlike any other cover in Freddie Hubbard's discography, and maybe in the history of recorded sound.

Windjammer (1976):. Even in 1976, this record seemed surprising and, to many, hugely disappointing. Hubbard left the auspices of CTI Records in 1973 only to record his most CTI (or Kudu)-like record ever for Columbia in 1976. Turning arrangement, production and, in one case ("Touch Me Baby"), songwriting reins over to keyboardist Bob James, Hubbard seemed to sense that the jazz winds were blowing this way. So, as they say, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em (or as The Simpsons' Mayor Quimby would say, "If that is the way the winds are blowing, let no one say that I don't also blow"). James, who played live behind Hubbard as part of the CTI All Stars several years before and was still recording for CTI himself, was signed in 1975 by Columbia Records to provide A&R services for such acts as Paul Simon, Kenny Loggins, Neil Diamond and Maynard Ferguson. These projects were such huge successes that by 1977, Columbia offered James his own label and Tappan Zee was born. Windjammer was perhaps the least successful project either Hubbard or James had ever worked on. But not only does it serve as a template for the work James would do at Tappan Zee, it really has some terrifically exciting moments that are hugely memorable - at least when given half the chance. Backed by a typically huge group of New York City studio pros, including soloists Eric Gale, Hubert Laws and Michael Brecker (Patti Austin and Gwen Guthrie are among the vocalists), Hubbard seems at times to be sublimated by James's charts or the occasional vocals. This is particularly true on the album's daft single, the MacDonald/Salter feature "Rock Me Arms," and, to an extent, James's own "Touch Me Baby." The covers are worth hearing, particularly James's near brilliant arrangement of Gary Wright's "Dream Weaver." Throughout each passage of the song, James perfectly spices the groove with different keyboard effects that work wonders on the basic melody, aided in no small measure by the unmistakable syncopations of Steve Gadd (who also adds his unique zest to "Touch Me Baby"). Hubbard solos magnificently here, seemingly engaged in James's clever take on the song. James also rethinks Morris Albert's dreadful "Feelings" and Hubbard elevates it to a new level that makes you absolutely forget the drivel of the original (Albert's original always reminds me of Carol Burnett as Eunice performing it on "The Gong Show"). The two Hubbard pieces heard here don't rank high among his output but are solid features nonetheless, particularly the title track, which features great solos by Hubbard and Brecker (and an oddly overdubbed passage by James). Both "Windjammer" and "Neo Terra (New Land)" - which, I believe, has been the only song up until now to find its way onto CD - feature Hubbard's keyboardist of the time, George Cables, shamefully buried deep, deep, deep in the background. This is one heck of a good album, warts and all. As a Freddie Hubbard album, it really isn't all that significant or notable (Scott Yanow calls this and 1981's Splash Hubbard's worst records ever). But taken as a Bob James album with special guest soloist Freddie Hubbard, it’s a monster of a good record.

Bundle of Joy (1977): I remember this album as if it was released yesterday. I always had it, yet I never listened to it. But it's a strangely satisfying record when given half a chance. As a Freddie Hubbard album, it ranks among the least satisfying he ever did. Still, there is much to recommend the album for those willing to sit through - and enjoy - it. Oddly, Bert DeCoteaux was the arranger here. At the time, I thought he was a softie, like somebody who would arrange Vicki Lawrence albums or something. But, oddly enough, he was a soul guy who helmed soulful projects by Albert Ayler (!), Marlene Shaw, The Main Ingredient, B.B. King and Ramsey Lewis. So you know what they were going for. There's a beautiful duet here, "Portrait of Jenny," that Hubbard plays most remarkably with the great, underrated harpist Dorothy Ashby. Even I am surprised how engagingly Hubbard and company covered Bunny Sigler's soulful, semi-disco hit "From Now On" (also covered by Lou Rawls and Linda Clifford). Hubbard really seems to respond to the groove, which ramps up especially nicely during DeCoteaux's nicely constructed bridge. But the best performances to be heard here, as expected, are the Hubbard pieces "Tucson Stomp" and, most especially, "Rahsann" (which, despite the spelling error, I presume, was intended as a dedication to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who died shortly before this recording and who recorded several Quincy Jones sessions with Hubbard). Like so many like-minded albums of the period, Bundle of Joy, is "over arranged" to a fault and the type of album that jazz lovers revile and vilify. Soloists other than Hubbard are keyboardist David Garfield (on the two somewhat pretty pieces he contributes to the album), Ernie Watts ("Rahsann"), David T. Walker ("Bundle of Joy") and Azar Lawrence ("Tucson Stomp"). Worth a listen, if only to hear what jazz guys had to do in the late 1970s to sell records. Strangely, records like this really didn't sell.

The Love Connection (1979): Freddie Hubbard must have experienced a great deal of frustration and consternation by this late point in his Columbia career. After five years with the label and repeated bows to acceptance or salability, he hadn't found a hit that met with public favor or a successful formula that rekindled the critics' appreciation of his music. So he teamed with arranger Claus Ogerman, who'd recently provided Hubbard's former CTI-mate George Benson with two huge-selling records for Warner Bros. and another former CTI-mate, Stanley Turrentine, with two of his better post-CTI albums for Fantasy. Ogerman, who also provided arrangements for Jobim's best CTI records, doesn't seem like the right match for Hubbard. The trumpeter's title track is proof enough. But it does get better. Among the best songs heard here are the ones where Ogerman's magic gets to shine through. Such examples include Hubbard's "Brigitte," written for Hubbard's wife (and widow) and originally featured on Hubbard's 1973 album Keep Your Soul Together, showing off Ogerman's gorgeous string flairs and a lovely piano solo from Chick Corea. Hubbard rises to the occasion here, as he does on "This Dream," Hubbard's duet with strings and muted brass as well as Corea and bassist Stanley Clarke in top supportive form. The song everyone remembers from this record is Hubbard's lovely "Little Sunflower" (which Hubbard debuted on his 1967 album Backlash), with lyrics and vocals by Al Jarreau. Ignore Jarreau and, even Hubbard to an extent. What Ogerman does here is what he does best. And it gets even better, spectacularly better, on the gorgeous standard "Lazy Afternoon." This is what probably makes the Hubbard-Ogerman connection make the most sense. Both are at the height of their creative and collaborative powers here. Even Ogerman agrees. As he said in his beautiful anthology, Claus Ogerman: The Man Behind The Music (2002), "I say that the slow parts of 'Lazy Afternoon' arranged for Freddie Hubbard are my best work and all I can do as an arranger. This chart and its recording alone was worth my coming to the United States." The more up-tempo part of the track features sensational solos by Hubbard, tenor sax great Joe Farrell and interesting synth lines from Chick Corea. As much as the title track is worth listening to, everything else here is worth hearing too. The Love Connection was also issued on CD in Japan in November 2008.

Skagly (1980): The title of Hubbard's final Columbia album has always been confounding. "Skag" or "scag," in my day (or my way of understanding), was a derogatory term used for ugly girls. But there's a pretty lady pictured on the cover. So that can't be right. Unbeknownst to me, at least at the time anyway, "skag" was also the jargon used to describe heroin. So what exactly is Skagly supposed to mean? Who knows? Perhaps the heroin angle is what led many to believe that Hubbard's fall from the music (or grace) in the early 1990s was drug related, despite repeated insistences that it was due to a busted lip. The rumors still persist. However it's meant, I'm not sure what Hubbard is meant to be celebrating here other than a trip back to his roots. After his many "arranged" albums, Hubbard returns here to a focus on his own band - like he did, to some extent, on his 1974 Columbia debut, High Energy. This band features yet another Joe Henderson clone, Hadley Caliman, on tenor sax, Billy (William) Childs on keyboards, Larry Klein on bass and Carl Burnett on drums. It's a sort of a "back-to-basics" album with two Hubbard originals (the rather lame "Happiness Is Now" and the significant title track, which features a solo break copped from Herb Alpert's "Rise," of all things, and doesn't sound like something someone on smack would be able to do), a typically anachronistic ballad ("Summer of 42"), Larry Klein's "Cascais," arranged to sound like one of Woody Shaw's tracks of the period, and Childs's "Rustic Celebration," which features this pianist - a cross between Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner - at his very best. Sadly, the album came and went without much notice at all. Like so many of Hubbard's Columbia recordings, it's absolutely worth the effort, if for nothing else other than the good playing heard, particularly on the title track, by all concerned, even "extras" George Duke on clavinet and Doobie Brother Jeff "Skunk" Baxter on guitar (both on the title track only). Trombonist Phil Ranelin is also prominent in the background of two tracks ("Cascais" and "Rustic Celebration"), both of which seem to be striving for a Woody Shaw sort of thing - something the label, no doubt, forced on Hubbard and certainly hastened his departure to other recording climes. One wonders what Hubbard must have thought of the recordings he made with Shaw several years later.

Wounded Bird is also releasing two Hubbard compilations from his CTI years, Polar AC, which features a beautiful Pete Turner cover and was issued years ago on CD in Japan, and The Baddest Hubbard, which has never been issued on CD before.

The Baddest Hubbard features four songs issued on previous Hubbard releases - all of which should be fairly easy to find on CD outside of this collection. Polar AC contains five songs, three of which only appear here: "People Make The World Go Round," "Betcha, By Golly Wow" and "Son of Sky Dive" (aka "Sky Dive").


Phantom Screed said...

Hi Doug -

Nice work on the Freddie re-issues wrap-up... which of course I bought on site :) Here's hoping sales are strong enough to convince someone to re-issue Gleam also.

I've always enjoyed your writing on jazz and just wanted to say "Keep up the good work!".

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dandiacal said...

I am so happy you gave serious and loving (re)consideration to these albums. For too long we have allowed jazz purists dictate how we evaluate this music. Good music is good music - whether the rhythm is swung or even eighth.

Scion said...

Hubbard's best work was easily on his early Blue Note records, especially "Breaking Point" and "Hub-Tones" as well as all the great sideman chores on others in the Blue Note stable.