Sunday, August 06, 2023

The Forgotten Fusions of Freddie Hubbard (1981-89)

Fusion jazz was as good as dead by 1980. Well, maybe not dead – but definitely not as cool or cutting-edge as it was only a decade before. It was also no longer the “fusion” of jazz, rock and funk it once was. At the turn of the eighties, fusion was much more informed by disco, itself a victim of popular – and, not-so-arguably, racist and homophobic – backlash by then.

For all the jazz players mining fusion throughout the seventies, many of whom became stars during this period, most saw the writing on the wall. The times were changing…yet again. Fusion players began to splinter off: some going back (awkwardly and inconsequentially) to their acoustic roots while others swam easily into the warm waters of “smooth jazz.” Some soldiered on, wherever it took them.

Consider trumpeter and flugelhorn player Freddie Hubbard (1938-2008). He easily and successfully traversed the worlds of bebop, post-bop, modal, free (“new thing”) and soul jazz in the sixties before launching into fusion at CTI in the seventies, beginning with his landmark album Red Clay (1970).

Shortly after winning a Grammy Award for his 1971 album First Light, the trumpeter left CTI for a highly lucrative contract (that CTI could not afford to match) at the mega-major Columbia label, home to fusion legends Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and (later) Chick Corea’s Return to Forever.

Oh, and someone named Miles – a frequent challenger to Freddie Hubbard in the polls and the charts throughout the years.

Between 1974 and 1980, Hubbard waxed seven studio records for Columbia, including his most divisive album (and a favorite of this writer), Windjammer (1976). Produced and arranged by Hubbard’s fellow CTI All Star alum Bob James, Windjammer became – and remains – Freddie Hubbard’s best-selling and highest-charting album, reaching #85 in the Billboard Top 200 in 1976.

The last Freddie Hubbard album to even crack the Billboard Top 200 – on Columbia or any label – was the superb 1978 Super Blue, essentially a CTI All Stars reunion. Hubbard’s particularly fine, but regrettably-titled Skagly (1980) made a minor dent on jazz radio. But even jazz radio stations were starting to vanish around the country by then.

In October 1980, Columbia “dropped” Freddie Hubbard (as well as Stan Getz and Wilbert Longmire) from the label – a mere five months after the release of Skagly, despite the album reaching number 14 that year on the Billboard Jazz chart. Apparently, that wasn’t good enough.

Oddly, though, Hubbard blamed his lack of success at Columbia on Bob James, of all people.

”I think Columbia relied too much on Bob James to produce jazz artists,” Hubbard told DownBeat in November 1981. “He wasn’t really a jazz producer. He was trying to get me away from jazz, which he did. Bob would just come in and lay down the tracks. I had to fit into what he had laid out. That was a mistake ‘cause there was no looseness.”

Outside of Windjammer, though, James had no known input on any other Hubbard album. It’s also unlikely James would have had the time for Hubbard after their lone album together as James was engaged with setting up his own Tappan Zee label and its artist roster – one that did not include the trumpeter in any way. But at least Hubbard himself considered Windjammer “a pretty good album.”


If Hubbard seemed bitter, his departure from Columbia freed him from whatever burdens Columbia imposed upon him---to do the exact same thing. While he was now a free agent, able to chart the waters of a new decade of ever-evolving tastes, technology and up-and-coming talent (notably a young lion named Wynton) he kept putting out more commercially-oriented fare. For a while, at least.

Now something of an elder stateman, Hubbard, only in his early forties, was busier than ever. He had a strong repertoire of originals and standards and was consistently able to keep a working band together. Hubbard did gigs on both the West and East Coasts, played festival dates all over the world and was often a featured soloist with many college bands.

A lot of these live dates were recorded and quite a few were issued during this period, most with Hubbard’s own consent. Hubbard also took advantage of many recording opportunities for a variety of American, European and Japanese labels.

Even though Hubbard was already part of one of the seventies’ only notable acoustic jazz groups, V.S.O.P. The Quintet (1976-79), he gradually returned to straight-ahead, or, as some would say, “traditional” jazz settings on his own.

The most memorable of these include the none too subtly-titled Back to Birdland (1981 – notable at the time for being digitally recorded), the all-star The Griffith Park Collection (1982), the terrific Sweet Return (1983) and the exceptional Double Take (1985), with Woody Shaw. Not for nothing are these Freddie Hubbard discs his best-remembered from the period.

Later in the decade, Hubbard would also take star turns on better-than-fine acoustic dates co-led by Benny Golson (1987), Kirk Lightsey (1988) and Art Blakey (1989) – all, notably, for labels outside of the U.S.

Still, he kept coming back to fusion. But the subject found Hubbard flip-flopping, as though the next one would be on his terms and the previous ones were on someone else’s terms.

“Everyone thought I was going after the money,” he said. “I’m the type of cat that likes to venture into all kinds of music.” But then he’d continue along these lines: “I know McCoy [Tyner] and Cecil [Taylor] have stuck straight on out with their thing, but my lifestyle is different. I wanna live good.”

While Hubbard hardly cranked out obvious Red Clay (1970) copycats, he did attempt to replicate First Light (1971) a bit more often than the market was willing to bear. Many contemporaneous critics were hostile toward most CTI records. But Hubbard’s CTI releases were held up as the trumpeter’s best recordings, particularly compared to his Columbia discs and these later fusion records.

Freddie Hubbard, whose sense of the market at the dawn of the eighties was probably not as sharp or as attuned as so many of his previous collaborators (consider, say, “Rockit”), he still waxed several albums of worthy music, nominally considered fusion music:

Mistral (1981), Splash (1981), Ride Like The Wind (1982), Life Flight (1987) and Times Are Changing (1989).

Without exception, each of these records – covered in the following posts – have at least one or more notable Freddie moments that are well worth cherishing and a perfect fit in “Hubbard’s Cupboard.”

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