Sunday, August 06, 2023

Freddie Hubbard – "Times Are Changing" (1989)

”For his Blue Note encore,” reported Billboard magazine on November 7, 1987, “Hubbard wants to do a ‘big production record,’ similar to the early '70s CTI work – like First Light and Red Clay – that enhanced his following. But to do so, the trumpeter says he'll need a bigger budget than he had for Life Flight.

”The producer who best captured this type of sound, says Hubbard, was CTI maven Creed Taylor, although he thinks Bob James came close with Windjammer. He'd like to book Herbie Hancock to run the board for his next date, but says Hancock's schedule may be too crowded.”

On Times Are Changing, the last major-label release during his lifetime, Freddie Hubbard was unable to secure the services or the aid of Creed Taylor, Bob James or even Herbie Hancock. He didn’t get to do a “big production record” either – something that synthesizers made wildly unfashionable at this point.

Odder, still, is the strange delay that it took Hubbard to get out his desired Life Flight follow-up. This suggests there was not much agreement about either what this disc should be or how much money Blue Note would fork over for this sort of record.

The program and the production here is largely overseen by keyboardist and songwriter Todd Cochran, much in the way Marcus Miller was then overseeing such Miles Davis recordings as Tutu (1986) and Music from Siesta (1987). Basically, the nominal leader drops his signature tones over top already-crafted grooves and then it goes to market.

Todd Cochran started his career as a teenager in John Handy’s group and made a name for himself with Bobby Hutcherson (check out the 1971 disc Head On). Cochran recorded two of his own albums as Bayeté for Prestige in the early seventies, memorably waxing the song “Free Angela,” which would later get covered by Santana.

Cochran would go on to form the pop-rock band Automatic Man, a short-lived venture he co-founded with drummer and former Santana co-founder Michael Shrieve. Cochran went on to be a session player and songwriter for sessions by Stanley Clarke, Stanley Turrentine, Stix Hooper and many others.

He had previously worked with Hubbard on Stanley Clarke’s “Together Again,” from the bassist’s 1979 album I Wanna Play for You. He also played on the title song to CTI’s Fuse One sequel Silk (1981), again with Clarke.

Hardly surprising then that Cochran brought some of his friends along for this date, including Michael Shrieve on percussion, Stix Hooper on drums (“Spanish Rose,” “Times ‘R Changin”) and Stanley Clarke on bass (“Spanish Rose”).

Also present throughout is percussionist Munyungo (here as “Munyango”) Jackson, a frequent Cochran associate. Jackson and Hubbard had recently appeared together on Norman Connors’s 1988 “Samba for Maria” and the percussionist was on the 1980 Connors album Take it to the Limit, where Hubbard is the featured soloist on the terrific instrumental cover of Steely Dan’s “Black Cow.”

This disc’s opener, ”Spanish Rose,” is a pleasant, breezy confection that finds Hubbard seemingly comfortable in a south-of-the-border smooth-jazz mode. Clarke and Hooper give the piece a real jazz vibe that is mostly missing elsewhere here.

Things get even smoother on the very eighties-esque “Back to Lovin’ Again,” a piece that sounds as though it could have been on any direct-to-video movie soundtrack of the period. Hubbard’s familiar elegance keeps things interesting, but neither of these pieces have the memorable punch of a typical Hubbard composition. Think “Red Clay,” “Povo” or even “Skagly.”

The Spanish flair continues on “Corazon Amplio (A Song for Bert),” a lovely cover of Sting’s eminently coverable “Fragile,” and the longish “Sabrosa.” Enjoyable and listenable as each of these may well be, all these tracks sound as though they are competing for spots on the Miles Davis/Marcus Miller Siesta soundtrack.

The evocative “Sabrosa” is by trumpeter Tex Allen (Gil Evans, Vincent Herring), who also contributed music to a 1981 Jimmy Cobb album featuring Hubbard. Saxophonist Vincent Herring – who would later join Hubbard’s band and appears on Hubbard’s Bolivia(1991) and MMTC (1995) – also covered “Sabrosa” on his 1995 album Don’t Let it Go.

Remarkably, for all the pop turns here, Blue Note took no chances with Times Are Changing. Several wannabe 45s are heard here, but no singles were ever issued.

Take, for example, “Was She Really There.” This peculiar number gets a vocal turn from then-frequent GRP vocalist Phil Perry, with a muted Hubbard adding sugary squiggles. To be sure, it’s not your average pop confectionary. One wonders who thought it might be.

It’s credited to the mysterious “G.F. Miely,” who turns out to be San Franscisco-based pianist and composer George Mullally. He recorded a few albums in the early eighties credited to “George M’Lely.” Hardly radio-friendly, “Was She Really There” may well have made a better instrumental – for a different album. It’s hard to tell.

That Blue Note translated this disc’s title track into common English from its otherwise Prince-ly derivation shows either how little they were behind the whole project or how much they just didn’t get any of it.

Unfortunately, the song “Times ‘R Changin” is little better than anonymous mid-eighties electro-funk: a knock-off of more interesting fare such as “Rockit” (1983), “Close (To The Edit)” (1984) or an instrumental outtake from Prince’s similarly titled Sign “O” The Times (1987).

”Trumpet vet delivers the ‘production record’ he has promised for two years,” wrote Billboard in May 1989, upon the album’s release. “Though his track record on crossover attempts has been spotty, early radio response puts this in the win column.” (Initially, this was true. But while the record reached a fairly respectable number 19 on the magazine’s Contemporary Jazz Albums chart, Hubbard’s previous effort, Life Flight, hit higher, reaching number 13 on that very same chart.)

”Keyboardist Cochran,” continued Billboard, “has written what may be Hubbard's smoothest fusion effort since his CTI days.” Whoever wrote that obviously hadn’t really listened to (or liked) Freddie Hubbard’s CTI records – or heard any of the studio records Hubbard waxed in the subsequent fifteen years.

Like the earlier Ride Like the Wind, Times Are Changing is more enjoyable than memorable. Hubbard’s playing throughout is on point, but he’s definitely coasting on autopilot here, more or less noodling over top someone else’s music.

If times were changing, then Times Are Changing was probably more backward glance than forward vision.

After this, Freddie Hubbard never made another so-called “production record.” Indeed, health problems and a serious lip injury curtailed much of his ability to record in any situation as prodigiously as he previously had.

The few studio recordings Hubbard waxed hereafter were all straight ahead – with several guest appearances on other artist’s hip-hop records – and, in most cases, contain little of the energy or enthusiasm he displayed on the records covered here.

I, for one, am glad for these records Freddie Hubbard made. I love each and every one. I could only wish this great player, bandmate and composer could have found a better way to navigate his path to a crossover success that likely never happened to his own personal satisfaction.

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