Sunday, August 06, 2023

Freddie Hubbard – "Life Flight" (1987)

Veteran trumpeter cuts a groove midway between his old Blue Note and CTI sessions on this slick album. Jazz radio will likely pick up on side one, featuring a session with guests Stanley Turrentine and George Benson. Unchallenging but commercially sure-fire. - Billboard

There’s absolutely nothing “midway” or “sure-fire” about this schizophrenic record.

Released in August 1987, Life Flight is Freddie Hubbard’s first solo outing on the storied Blue Note label since 1965. Its split personality pits anonymous electric funk on side one of the original vinyl LP (his first dive down this rabbit hole in a full five years) with two strong signature Hubbard compositions on side two, delivered by an acoustic quintet in straight-ahead fashion.

Both groups feature keyboardist Larry Willis, who, surprisingly, had only previously recorded with Hubbard on a 1981 Jimmy Cobb disc, and drummer and fellow-CTI accolade Idris Muhammad, who first factored with Hubbard on George Benson’s 1969 album The Other Side of Abbey Road.

Side one is comprised of two longish but bland funk-blues tunes that would have never made the cut on any CTI record. They do, however, boast the comfortable familiarity of the expert noodling by the leader and his former CTI All Stars compatriots, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and guitarist George Benson.

These pieces include the oddly-titled almost-melody “Battlescar Galorica,” co-written by Eddie “Gip” Noble (best known as co-writer of Teddy Pendergrass’s “Love T.K.O.”) and George Johnson of the Brothers Johnson, and the electric blues riff “A Saint’s Homecoming Song.” The latter piece is credited solely to Johnson, who had previously “played” with Hubbard on Steve Arrington’s 1985 dance hit “Feel So Real.” Although the soloists are, as ever, a joy to hear, neither of these tracks will lodge in anyone’s memory.

For whatever reason, the guitarist George “Lightnin’ Licks” Johnson wasn’t invited to play here: probably to keep a light on Benson. But while none of this fusion side makes much sense, it’s easy to assume more was recorded than appears here. But if this was the best of what was recorded during the electric sessions, we probably don’t need to hear much more.

Benson and Turrentine sadly disappear from side two and exceptional tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore steps in for the record’s far-superior acoustic second side.

The 22 minutes of this side are the only signs of life or flight here. These two pieces – “The Melting Pot” and “Life Flight,” both Hubbard compositions – would have found favor on any one of Hubbard’s CTI, Columbia, Atlantic or Blue Note records.

Here, Hubbard steps up as composer – and his playing and soloing take on meaningful prowess, something rather lacking on too many of his fusion recordings of the period. So does the playing of pianist Larry Willis and bassist Rufus Reid. These pieces are not only worthy of Hubbard but Blue Note as well.

Interesting, though, to see Freddie pictured on the then-mod Italian couch here, as it updates or recalls his appearance 14 years earlier on Pete Turner’s then-hip “lips” couch, as pictured on the cover of the 1973 CTI album Keep Your Soul Together.

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