Sunday, 9 March 2014

Review: Freddie Hubbard - Red Clay

The dominant and possibly defining jazz label of the 1970’s, CTI had an occasionally almost schizophrenic output, producing for the most part straight and swinging jazz as well as some of the best fusion works of the time, but also releasing a number of recordings that helped create the roots of smooth-jazz and muzak. As such, for every Stanley Turrentine’s ‘Sugar’ with it grooving funky jazz, or Jim Hall’s undisputed masterpiece ‘Concierto’, there’s a Bob James record which borders dangerously close to disco (good pianist, excellent arranger, lacklustre artist).

Grabbing the then biggest names in jazz, Creed Taylor signed them up to enjoy quite often their most commercially successful periods. For Freddie Hubbard this was obviously true, whose albums here sold massively in comparison to his earlier Blue Note sessions. Prior to CTI, his best work was often playing under the leadership of others such as Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter, but under Taylor’s wing he produced a tight fist of work that rank as his highest achievements under his own name. The first of these in particular, ‘Red Clay’, surrounds him with the stellar company of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Joe Henderson and Lenny White, and is immediately a winner.

The title track opens with a short section that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Miles Davis’ spacier sections from his epochal ‘Bitches Brew’, with Hubbard and Henderson trading blows, before quickly settling into a soulful and easy rhythm set out by Carter and White. Hancock plays some nice and languid electric piano over the top and everyone gets to solo with impressive skill and finesse. ‘Delphia’ that follows is almost as good too; a slower moving piece, with some moody organ work from Hancock, the trumpet man gets to play one of his finest solos, flitting from introspective to upbeat and lightly boppy. Some tasteful flute is added too, for colour rather than any solo, and it raises the piece nicely.

The cleverly-titled ‘Suite Sioux’ is perhaps the least interesting piece here, sounding like a more traditional if likeable enough bop, albeit with a subtle hint of bossa and the use of some electrics. Henderons solo though is spot on. A very seventies fade-out-and-then-fade-back-in closes the track unmemorably. ‘The Intrepid Fox’ gets things back on track though with an urgent and feverish number that has everyone sounding lively and energized, with some great riffing and Hubbard going for a definite less-is-more approach that handsomely pays off.

As bonuses we get a bold and funky take on John Lennon’s ‘Cold Turkey’, which though fun is far from essential and just runs out of puff. Much better is an impressive version of the title track from a later live date. At almost nineteen minutes, it’s some six minutes longer than the studio take and it’s a corker; looser and freer-flowing, it’s a powerful show, with the bonus presence of guitarist George Benson adding greatly to the mix.

‘Red Clay’ is a fusion work that doesn’t really fall into the same bucket as most other ‘fusion’. One of the earliest and perhaps ‘less fused’ records of the era, it’s basically a then contemporary take on modal jazz, but with harder hitting drums, and electric piano and bass instead of acoustic. No attempts here to borrow head-down groove from funk bands, slashing guitar work from the rockers, or bizarre keyboard effects and sounds, and as such it gives Hubbard his own voice while at the same time preventing it from sounding as dated as other similar works of the era. Additionally and importantly, there’s certainly no obvious copying of any of Miles or his then current experimentations. In fact it sounds simply like good strong jazz and is consequently one of the trumpeters (and labels) defining albums.


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