In Memory of Frederick Dewayne Hubbard, 7th April 1938 – 29th December 2008.
Of course the prominent voice of the generation, the leading jazz trumpeter, the plaudit-soaked virtuoso building adventurous hard-bop’s nicely wobbling cliff-edge edifice; of course that. But still, what might be the best way to approach the legacy of someone like Freddie Hubbard – the best way in? Listening to ‘Some Trees’, the 2006 album on hatOLOGY by the group of Daniel Levin/Nate Wooley/Matt Moran/Joe Morris might not seem the most obvious first attempt; but they do cover the titular composition from Eric Dolphy’s ‘Out to Lunch’, on which Hubbard appeared in rather a good light, and in very fine company. (This makes it sound like Dolphy & co. were out for a dinner party, rather than a manic quick bite round the corner. A fantastic scenario scurries across my brain, in which Dolphy’s bass clarinet caught hiccups on the fine wine and Bobby Hutcherson played the wine glasses, while Richard Davis strummed a table leg. Tony Williams on the finest kitchen equipment kept the whole thing bubbling over nicely. What did the customers say? Speechless by speechified yawp-elegance, the dinner reached up beyond gratifying your own desires only to slurp from a different stream of sounds.)
Anyway, Nate Wooley’s playing might seem to specifically point up a difference with Hubbard’s own. It’s more obviously ‘out’, and harks back past bop’s quick-silver cleanness to the earlier ‘vulgarity’ of a trumpeter like Bubber Miley: full of buzzing rasps and high squeals, it seems shocking precisely because Hubbard’s playing seemed so natural to the original – that it fitted so well into the sound of that record. Just as one can’t imagine ‘Kind of Blue’ without Bill Evans or John Coltrane, it is the group that make that record. Or we might even note how Wooley’s use of a repeated clarion motto, a low blast followed by an upwards step to a pungent high peak, sounds similar to some of the things that Hubbard was doing on his avant-garde dates in the early and mid 60s.
Hubbard may receive some flak from free jazz fans for not going quite far enough ‘out’ as he might have done on such dates as Ornette’s ‘Free Jazz’ or Coltrane’s ‘Ascension’, but the fact remains that some of the most progressive musicians of the time found him a fine musician to worth with (and it’s not as if label imperatives forced him onto them – these sessions come on different labels, neither of them being Blue Note, the label with which Hubbard was most often associated).
And then there’s the 1971 album ‘Sing me a Song of Songmy’: in itself perhaps not that successful an album, but an indication of the experimentalism of the times, even as Hubbard was about to move towards increased CTI slickness. Yes, the work on ‘Songmy’ may mostly be that of Turkish composer Ilhan Mimaroglu, who patched everything together (Hubbard’s playing is mostly acoustic, accompanied by his current jazz group, and Mimaroglu mixes it in with various electronic treatments, vocal recitations, and orchestral drama). But if the musical experimentation and political thematising (this is often crisis music) aren’t so much Hubbard’s work – and if they don’t always come off – there are moments of intense, stabbing pain and realisation which on their own would be enough to win me over to Hubbard, even if the rest of his career somehow had not happened. ‘Monodrama’ stabs and slurs the void, the pit of hunger and hopelessness; is drained mourning, mourning for mourning itself, in a world without the promise of a morning sun that does not stain the sky red with its rising tide of blood, does not offer a prospect on landscapes made of corpse-mounds. And then all that voiced up in grave register, Hubbard’s ensuing recitation of the anti-Vietnam poem ‘Black Soldier’: “You, black man, U.S. army private first class: for freedom you shoot down your own freedom. Your body lies crucified on a still cross: the cross has profit and forced labour at each end.”
Better an interesting and crushingly wounded failure than something so polished within the terms it has set itself that it ends up saying nothing at all to anyone beyond those who know exactly what they are looking for: thus the difference in quality between even the later fusion pap and even the earlier work on the CTI record label. ‘Red Clay’, a critical and fan favourite, is a lot less ‘fusiony’ than one might expect – listen to Hubbard and Joe Henderson dig into some serious Coltrane spiritual-type vibes in the intro, then stretch out over the Rhodes and rhythm.
But above all, listen to Hubbard on Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage’ and ‘Empyrean Isles’. Hubbard and Hancock’s artistic paths diverged since that date when so much seemed possible, when Hancock’s conception encompassed both ‘Cantaloupe Island’ and ‘Watermelon Man’ funkiness and the long-form abstraction of ‘The Egg’ or the quick-fire brutality of ‘Eye of the Hurricane’. Hancock is still a respected, Grammy-award winning performer, who’s retained his phenomenal acoustic chops, and sporadically deploys them to fine effect, alongside some of his more questionable fusion moves (‘Rockit’, anyone?); by contrast, Hubbard blew out his lip and arguably made little music of lasting value for at least the past 15 years (despite valiant attempts like ‘New Colors’ from 2001).
This narrative verges on a useless nostalgia, whereby that one moment, or those few moments, in past time, become that which we have now lost and can only think on with wistful regret as we move from past time to pastime: leaving the work we should have done its documentation in a couple of records, deferring what should be our desires and ambitions to those of others to ventriloquize us. Of course there is loss – nostalgia registers that loss in a manner that suggests it could be more than regressive avoidance of the present moment – but such loss is the condition of our living and can’t be made the false idol of our sorrow-worshipping immobility. For then we’d ignore that Hancock’s album sounds in and through and with us still not because it is a product of its time (though of course it is that) but because it is still the burning flame, inner mounting or otherwise, that lights some way.
I hope you’ll get some sense of that flame still burning in the writing and the music written about in this third issue of eartrip. Why not flip the page and find out.
As always, the contact address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Pop me a mail if you’re interested in writing for the magazine (please do get in touch!), or have any comments you’d like to make. I should point out that I’ll be leaving university in a few months, so it would be best to send physical things to the following address:
17 Avenue Road