Listening to….Freddie Hubbard

Some time ago (17 November to be precise) I wrote a piece here about trumpeter Donald Byrd and his chameleonesque attempts to anticipate the next wave in jazz (often dictated by what Miles Davis was doing at the same time). 

Purely by chance today is the first anniversary of the death of Freddie Hubbard, who was another of those who toiled in Miles’ shadow for much of his career. It was a career with brilliant beginnings, because – leaving aside the excellent solo albums he made for Blue Note early in his career – Hubbard’s  CV  additionally saw him playing on some of the key recordings of the early 1960’s; Ornette Coleman’s ‘Free Jazz’, John Coltrane’s ‘Ole’,  Oliver Nelson’s ‘Blues & the Abstract Truth’ and Herbie  Hancock’s  ‘Maiden Voyage’ to name but four.  Hubbard’s style was in strict contrast to Miles’ wispy ethereal offerings of the time – Hubbard used a fat brassy tone on trumpet and also played flugelhorn

Freddie Hubbard – a man and his flugelhorn

regularly, but he – like Donald Byrd – grew frustrated with the way in which the press and the jazz press in particular were obsessed with whatever Miles Davis was doing, to the detriment of whatever any other trumpeter was doing.  Like Byrd, Freddie Hubbard toyed with other musical forms; signing to Atlantic Records in 1966, he produced albums called ‘Backlash‘ and ‘High Blues Pressure’ which used conventional jazz ensembles in a more aggressive and orchestrated fashion than Blue Note had done. In 1969, he produced ‘A Soul Experiment’ which featured guitarist Eric Gale on most tracks and anticipated the work he was to do with CTI in the 1970’s.

Also in 1969, he toured Europe as part of a ‘Jazz Wave’ package with an impressive-looking band of Ron Carter (bass) Louis Hayes (drums) and Roland Hanna (piano) and recordings of this band have now emerged as a posthumous

addition to the Freddie Hubbard discography – ‘Without a Song’.

I’d love to be able to tell you that this is a vital addition to the Freddie Hubbard archive, but the truth is that this is an album suffering from what I call ‘John Lennon Syndrome’ – think I’d better explain what I mean by that……

Back in the early 1980’s, not long before he was shot and killed in New York, John Lennon released a new album (‘Double Fantasy’) on a new label (Geffen).  By general agreement among most critics and most of the record-biz insiders I knew in those days, this record was as noxious as a week old kipper and was possessed of few if any redeeming features.  Clearly, this was a vanity project for David Geffen who just drooled at the prospect of having a Beatle on his new label and for Lennon and his missus, it was probably a welcome injection of cash. 

Then Lennon got shot and Double Fantasy began to sell, steadily at first, then like hot cakes – necro-rock has always been big business.  Of course Double Fantasy is still a pile of crap, but that didn’t matter to those who wanted to register their shock at what had happened outside the Dakota Building.  So, as I witnessed this phenomenon at first hand, I have always referred to this as ‘Double Fantasy syndrome’ or ‘John Lennon Syndrome’ as most people don’t remember what ‘Double Fantasy’ was in the first place – and why would they, after all……?

And so to ‘Without a song’.  Posthumous releases are always tricky and usually fall into one of three categories:

1. A genuine discovery, a treasure trove of unreleased gems.  A very rare occurrence

2. A cynical piece of exploitative rubbish foisted on a gullible public by a grasping industry.  Plentiful examples of this.

3. A well-intentioned but unremarkable piece of work that clearly shows why it never got a release whilst the artist was still alive but is of minor interest to die-hard fans and completists.

For me, ‘Without a song’ definitely comes under the third heading.  I have problems with it from the title track which opens proceedings….recorded at London’s Royal Festival Hall.  The sleeve notes (written by a guy I’ve never heard of who was apparently a buddy of  Freddie in his latter days) suggest that the relationship between Hubbard and drummer Louis Hayes are key to these recordings; apparently they were big buddies and near-neighbours in Brooklyn around this time.  Far be it from me to disagree with the sleeve notes – and it is true, Hayes and Hubbard dominate the opening track if only because Hayes’ assault on the cymbals on his kit make it hard to hear anyone else except Hubbard; Roland Hanna’s  Monkish tinklings can sometimes be heard through the blizzard of cymbal noise, but Ron Carter’s bass is completely buried in what we might waggishly refer to as ‘the mix’

It’s pretty much the same story on all the up-tempo tracks on this CD –  Hayes thrashes away like he was playing in a different postcode and only the slower pieces have any real charm.  Also, this wasn’t Hubbard’s regular band, so most of the titles are standards like ‘A Night in Tunisia’,  bashed out for a European audience at a series of festivals in which the Hubbard band were just one of the featured acts – not a scenario likely to produce Freddie’s finest work really…

And yet, and yet……all the reviewers (even John Fordham of ‘The Guardian’) were falling over one another to praise this CD when Blue Note unleashed it earlier this year.  I reckon they could have released a posthumous collection of Freddie singing Aerosmith hits in the shower and it would have received more serious consideration than a ‘proper’ record would have done whilst he was still alive.  Not sure what that really says about our music reviewers, but it sounds like  a variation on  ‘John Lennon Syndrome’ again to me…..

For any serious Freddie Hubbard fans reading this, my advice would be to fill in any gaps in your collection from the Blue Note period (1960-5).  Freddie himself is in good enough repair on this recording, but the band as a band just don’t function as a band, if you know what I mean…I think Blue Note might pay tribute to a great character and player by releasing a retrospective with some alternative takes or live recordings from Freddie’s ‘glory days’ – if such things exist.  As for ‘Without a song’, for all the effusive reviews, I would strongly doubt if it finished up on any reviewer’s ‘Album of the Year’ list……



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