Sunday, August 06, 2023

Freddie Hubbard – "Mistral" (1981)

Mistral probably derives its title from the cold winterly wind that blew Freddie Hubbard from his major-label perch at Columbia. Recorded over several days in September 1980, Mistral was likely recorded for – and financed by – the Columbia label. The recording was picked up and released a year later by the Japanese East World label and issued in the U.S. by Liberty, home at the time to guitarist Earl Klugh.

Curiously, though, the record is purportedly produced by John Koenig, then head honcho at his father Lester’s revived Contemporary Records. Koenig was responsible for producing the trumpeter’s guest appearances on two terrific records of the period: pianist George Cables’ Cables’ Vision (1980) and fellow CTI veteran Joe Farrell’s Sonic Text (1981). One wonders why this record wasn’t on Contemporary as well.

Joining Hubbard on Mistral’s front line is West Coast jazz legend Art Pepper (also on Contemporary at the time). In their only known recording together, Hubbard and Pepper are linked by pianist George Cables, who was Hubbard’s pianist in the early seventies and Pepper’s pianist in the late seventies. Pepper is not an obvious foil for Hubbard. But he’s no slouch and his warm tone holds its own alongside the leader, particularly when Hubbard is on the flugelhorn.

Cables himself returned to Hubbard’s band after several albums together on CTI and Columbia in the mid-seventies (the two would pair up again on Hubbard’s 1981 acoustic set Back to Birdland).

Perhaps the most notable addition to the line-up is bass wunderkind Stanley Clarke, who was experiencing a burst of his own popularity at the time. Hubbard and Clarke were captured only briefly before this: the latter as guest on the former’s The Love Connection and the former as guest on the latter’s I Wanna Play For You (both 1979).

Trombonist Phil Ranelin returns from Skagly to take a tasty solo on “Bring it Back Home.”

Mistral is a solid slice of good fusion jazz, but maybe a bit more of its time than many of Hubbard’s CTI and Columbia albums. It isn’t programmed as strongly as it might have been: opening with the familiar “Sunshine Lady” doesn’t promise nearly as much as the set’s fiery closer, “Bring it Back Home.”

The program is typical for Hubbard during this time, a few originals (at least one burner and a ballad), the requisite standard (in this case, Cole Porter’s “I Love You”) and some band features. Highlights include Hubbard’s terrifically funky “Bring it Back Home” (handily driven by Cables, Clarke and drummer Peter Erskine) and George Cable’s moody “Blue Nights,” which was also recorded with lyrics around the same time for Japanese vocalist Anli Sugano’s Show Case, also on East World.

Hubbard and company are surely at their best, though, on the album’s straight-ahead pieces, “I Love You,” and Hubbard’s “Eclipse,” first heard on his underrated 1970 Atlantic album The Black Angel. Both pieces were the middle tracks of the original vinyl LP’s two sides, landing like the lyrical second movement of a classical concerto. In other words, these two tracks are perfectly positioned on the record.

It seems someone could have tried crafting singles out of the easy funk of “Now I’ve Found You” or Clarke’s smooth-y “Sunshine Lady” (also recorded several months earlier by Clarke for the 1980 CTI all-star date Fuse One). But no one did. For the record, CTI didn’t try to do anything with “Sunshine Lady” either.

”A first-class mainstream jazz album,” said Billboard (September 26, 1981) of Mistral while Cash Box noted that “Hubbard is in a mellow mood on…this smooth ride.” Both comments seem at odds with one another, but both are true. Mistral is evidence of the tightrope many jazz greats were walking at the time. Here, Freddie Hubbard navigates that fine line particularly well.

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