Along with Lee Morgan, Hubbard inherited the Clifford Brown bop-chops trumpet legacy. He helped stretch the bonds of hardbop in the 1960s and moved toward light fusion in the following decade. I’ll admit to a love/hate relationship with him; on the one hand, he’s the first big name jazz artist yours truly went to see in concert (circa 1990), and it had quite an effect, as did his albums I went out and bought not long after. He is an incredible talent on his own sessions, but his sideman performances are often overblown, as if trying to sell himself through his technique. Maiden Voyage comes to mind, with all those notes that call attention to themselves, and I cannot understand why he got the call for certain free albums, like Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, where he sounds misplaced. At least Hubbard had the awareness to wonder in hindsight what he was doing on Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz. In any case - and this is all subjective anyway - I think Hubbard plays more appropriately on his own recordings, perhaps because he knows what he wants to hear on those occasions and no auditioning is necessary.
And so, a few items, out of many:
Cool hardbop with a Trane rhythm contingent (McCoy Tyner, Art Davis, Elvin Jones) and Wayne Shorter and Bernard McKinney (euphonium) in the front line. The opening “Arietis” is one of Freddie’s best themes, and Shorter’s “Marie Antoinette” isn’t far behind in likeability. Both tunes make the complex sound simple and push the soloists into interesting territories. “Crisis” opens with similar promise on a good bassline, but the melody is dull. Decent solos, though. The group turns the blues “Birdlike” into an advanced jam session, and in the ballad “Weaver of Dreams”, Freddie reveals the sensitivity and taste often hiding behind his technical displays, shaping notes with beautiful suspense. Ready For Freddie is maybe the best first choice of his Blue Notes, and you can take all of the sidemen’s contributions to the bank. Elvin stokes the fires and Wayne sings in his personalized tenor sax voice. Again, I have to single out “Arietis”, the harmonies of which point the way through the rest of the decade. Both Herbie Hancock and Wayne would soon be writing pieces that sounded a lot like it.
This is with Hubbard’s working band - James Spaulding, Ronnie Mathews, Eddie Khan, and Joe Chambers - which probably made the more extreme material easier to handle. The title track is pure bravado, a fanfare followed by a calypso section and free solos. It’s such a confident and strange piece that you can’t help but let it blow your hair back and enjoy the ride. “Far Away” has a vamp that seems very Coltrane-like with a great Spaulding flute solo and an even better bass spot for Khan. In this track, Hubbard approaches the avant-garde through the side door - not quite gaining admittance, but not belonging there anyway. Chambers’ “Mirrors” is a lovely script for trumpet and flute that sounds like something Brubeck and Corea might have co-written. Lest fans of Freddie’s earlier music be put off, “Blue Frenzy” and “D Minor Mint” are more traditional yet have small twists of their own. Throughout everything, Hubbard’s chops and ideas runneth over, pianist Ronnie Mathews is fantastic, and Chambers’ drumming lives up to its usual great standard. A stimulating record.
Hubbard has regarded this album as his personal best, and there’s no need to argue. He retains a somewhat provocative harmonic stance, now with some of the ambiguous chords that were coming into favor at the time, suspended fourths and the like. There are some tentative backbeats, too; it isn’t fusion but takes a step in that direction. With Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Lenny White (post-Bitches Brew, pre-Return to Forever) on board, Freddie is well assisted in his search for a new thing. Under the supervision of producer Creed Taylor, “Red Clay” had no chance of coming across aggressively on record, although the hazy film of the recording (with much dynamic range) suits it entirely. The essence of the whole thing is summed up in the title track, a true classic with a snappy theme, sharp groove, enticing parallel chord movement, and much blowing room.
Also nodding to R&B is the 6/8 roadhouse section of “Delphia”, otherwise a semi-maudlin ballad with flute and Farfisa organ. After that, Freddie picks up where his traditional Blue Notes left off. “Suite Sioux” (get it?) is a hot swinger, and the amazing “Intrepid Fox” lays a marvelous theme over modern chord shifts. Groovy jams happen in Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” and the bonus live version of “Red Clay”. An enjoyable listen all the way through.
Where groove was only one of the colors in the Red Clay landscape, almost all of this album is devoted to it. The title track has a very catchy theme but from then on settles into a quarter hour of long-winded solos over a two-chord vamp. So after Hubbard and Joe Henderson have made their horn statements and George Benson and Herbie Hancock have daubed their guitar and electric piano bits, you may well have forgotten what song you’re listening to. “Mr. Clean” is even funkier and nastier (inasmuch as any CTI recording may be called nasty), and while both tracks capture good work from ace players, they run to exhaustive length despite gritty solos and varied rhythms from Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette.
The third and final track makes a gorgeous about-face; Hubbard picks up the flugelhorn to render “Here’s That Rainy Day” accompanied only by guitar and bass. At the risk of dispatching a hasty superlative, I’ll say that it’s the best ballad performance I’ve ever heard him play. His phrasing, tone, and pace are masterful. Perhaps that’s an illusion after a half-hour of loose jams, but the performance is still remarkable. Beauty, as has been said, is a rare thing.
On the job with a group of young lions: tenor Javon Jackson (who sounds uncannily like Joe Henderson), Benny Green, Chris McBride, and Tony Reedus. Freddie’s chops are weathered a bit, but that makes him have to work at the material, not necessarily a bad thing. Better than skating over it too easily with magic lip and fingers, and his sideman are more than able to make up the difference. This two-disc set covers Hubbard’s hardbop angst (“CORE”, “One of a Kind”) along with 1970s timepieces (“Destiny’s Children”, “First Light”), and newer material appears in McBride’s “EGAD” (riding the Trane) and Green’s bright “Phoebe’s Samba”. In fact, those last two are the highlights of the first half.
The second disc ups the intensity, from the “CORE” manifesto (good, but in the shadow of the Jazz Messenger original) to the drawn-out jazz-funk jams. Bob your head with the beats, smile at the blue notes, waft away on the major seconds. The set captures the ambience of a club gig where you can picture yourself nursing an import and applauding the solos and themes. It’s no more or less special than that.