As a trumpet player, Freddie Hubbard seemed to have it all. A fully formed musician at a young age, he could do the really difficult, technical stuff with apparent ease – like the stratospheric, warp-speed melodies that would make most other trumpeters’ lips bleed – and yet could play slow, achingly romantic ballads with a rich, full-bodied tone. He was, in some ways, like his idols Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis rolled into one. But from the very beginning of his career, he showed that he possessed qualities that made him unique. “I just think he was in a class all by himself,” Hubbard’s friend, bassist Ron Carter once told me.
Hubbard’s career began in earnest when he blew into New York from Indianapolis like a whirlwind in 1958. Though he quickly became a rising star of the Big Apple’s hard bop scene – via a series of stunning solo albums for the iconic Blue Note label as well as recordings with drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers – he was comfortable in a range of different musical settings. He appeared on some of jazz’s most progressive and groundbreaking records in the early 1960s – including Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch – and in the 70s traveled in a more commercial direction by embracing funk, fusion, and pop before returning to acoustic jazz in his twilight years.
Containing 60-plus solo albums, Hubbard’s catalogue contains so many great records that if you’re new to him, it’s hard to know where to find an entry-point. That’s why we’ve compiled this introduction to the best songs of Freddie Hubbard, the man they called “The Hub.”
Freddie Hubbard in the early 1960s
Frederick Dwayne Hubbard was born in Indianapolis in 1938 and started playing trumpet in church as a child. Although he went on to have classical training and played in a junior symphony orchestra, his heart was set on becoming a jazz musician, and in 1958, he began making his mark on the Indianapolis scene, making his recording debut with a rising local group called the Montgomery Brothers (which included guitar sensation Wes Montgomery).
Soon afterward, 20-year-old Hubbard migrated to New York where his bravura horn playing soon garnered attention and led to Open Sesame, his debut album for Blue Note, the home of hard bop, a driving style of jazz that drew on blues and gospel music. Released in 1960, the LP featured saxophonist Tina Brooks, who wrote the set’s classic title tune, a propulsive, Iberian-flavored slice of hard bop where Hubbard’s long solo is not only breathtakingly flamboyant but indicative of his incredible stamina.
Hubbard was prolific at Blue Note and amongst his best tracks for the label was “Crisis,” purportedly inspired by escalating Cold War tensions and the threat of nuclear armageddon. He recorded the tune first on the 1961 Jazz Messengers LP Mosaic and shortly afterwards on his solo album Ready For Freddie, which featured a brilliant trumpet solo composed of dazzling liquid runs and soaring high notes. On the luminous ballad “Weaver Of Dreams” from the same album, Hubbard showed that he could blow his horn with sensitivity and a peerless technical brilliance.
Though much of Hubbard’s Blue Note output adhered to the hard bop template, he showed a more progressive side on the superior 1964 LP Breaking Point!, which was also his first album consisting solely of self-written material. The title track, dominated by Hubbard’s foraging horn, contrasted edgy avant-garde passages with jaunty calypso music, while “Mirrors” – written by the trumpeter’s then drummer, Joe Chambers – was a slow, reflective piece where Hubbard impresses by using fewer notes; his eloquent horn entwined with James Spaulding’s dancing flute.
The Prolific Side Man
During his tenure at Blue Note, Freddie Hubbard was also very much in demand as a session player. Recorded just after his first session for Alfred Lion’s label, The Blues & The Abstract Truth by the saxophonist/composer/arranger Oliver Nelson was an album on the newly formed Impulse! label that showed Hubbard’s amazing virtuosity, particularly on the stunning track “Stolen Moments.”
But most of Hubbard’s sideman appearances were on records by many of Blue Note’s other artists. His improvised solo on Dexter Gordon‘s “Society Red” (from the saxophonist’s 1961 album Doin’ Allright) is two-and-a-half-minutes-long and while it is dazzlingly athletic, it also reflects Hubbard’s instinctive command of the blues.
One of Hubbard’s most famous solos as a sideman was on Herbie Hancock‘s debut LP, 1962’s Takin’ Off, where he delivered a knockout passage of improv on the pianist’s catchy soul-jazz number “Watermelon Man.” He begins his solo slowly before ratcheting up the aural excitement with a mixture of growling vibrato figures, staccato stabs, and screaming high notes. Hubbard contributed another memorable solo on a later Hancock LP, 1965’s Maiden Voyage, where he takes the listener on an emotional rollercoaster on the title track, with long, soft notes giving way to extravagant and louder febrile flourishes.
No examination of Hubbard’s sideman sessions would be complete without mentioning his spell in The Jazz Messengers, drummer Art Blakey‘s “Hard Bop Academy,” a finishing school for jazz musicians which the trumpeter joined in 1961 replacing another boy wonder, Lee Morgan. The title track from the band’s 1963 album “Ugetsu,” written by the band’s pianist Cedar Walton, was recorded live in Japan. Hubbard’s solo is a thing of beauty, defined by fluttering chromatic tremolos, melodic swirls, and jabbing riffs. In the 70s, he recorded it again under two different titles; “Fantasy In D” and “Polar AC.”
Late 60s experiments
In the second half of the 60s, Freddie Hubbard’s music was wide-ranging, running the gamut from infectious soul-jazz grooves to experimental avant-garde soundscapes. One of his most accessible pieces from this period is the tune that became his signature number, “Little Sunflower,” a sweetly soulful groove cut in 1967 that he also revisited in 1979 with vocalist Al Jarreau. (Hubbard also played trumpet on a stupendous 1973 version by vibraphonist Milt Jackson, then his label mate at CTI Records).
More extreme but highly indicative of Hubbard’s desire to venture outside of his hard bop comfort zone, is the haunting “Monodrama,” taken from the trumpeter’s provocative 1969 album Sing Me A Song Of Songmy, a collaboration with the Turkish composer İlhan Mimaroǧlu. Subtitled A Fantasy For Electromagnetic Tape, the LP addressed topics like the Vietnam War, racism, and Charles Manson’s murder of Hollywood star Sharon Tate while framing Hubbard’s horn with skillfully constructed mosaics that weaved together spoken narrations, choral fragments, and musique concrète.
The 70s: From funk to fusion to pop
Freddie Hubbard opened the 1970s with a bang, recording Red Clay, his debut album for CTI, producer Creed Taylor’s indie label. The classic title track, which begins with an exploding wave of sound, then eases into a funky groove where Hubbard and saxophonist Junior Cook intone a plaintive theme over Lenny White’s metronomic drums and Herbie Hancock’s Rhodes piano.
In 1972, Hubbard expanded his sonic horizons by embarking on an ambitious orchestral project called First Light with Taylor at the helm; featuring arranger Don Sebesky’s opulent strings and horns, the album’s Latin-tinged title track brought Hubbard his first and only Grammy award. The album also yielded the ballad “Yesterday’s Dreams,” where Hubbard used a mute effect on his horn to emphasize the tune’s aura of wistful melancholy. “He had the ability to instantly realize what he thought in his mind,” Don Sebesky, the arranger of First Light, told this writer in 2009, extolling Hubbard’s genius for improvisation. “There was no delay between his technique and ideas so he was fearless.”
Hubbard’s stylistic trajectory changed after he moved to the affluent major label Columbia in 1974, though his output, especially his dalliances with pop and fusion, was rarely a critical success. But he did record some exceptional tunes for the label during this period, exemplified by the shimmering, Latin-infused nocturne “Ebony Moonbeams,” written by Hubbard’s then piano player, George Cables, from the album High Energy, and the epic, percussion-powered “Kunte,” an African-flavored juggernaut where Hubbard used wild echo effects to heighten the drama of his soaring solo.
Though his Bob James-produced album Windjammer from 1976 was slated by most jazz critics for its pop content and commercial aspirations, it did give us the fabulously energetic “Neo Terra,” where Hubbard shows why he was revered as a horn player; he blows a glass-shattering horn solo over a percolating funk groove colored with flute arabesques and svelte strings.
Freddie Hubbard’s later years
In 1982, Freddie Hubbard released Born To Be Blue, which marked his return to hard bop. It opened with a Latinized percussion-driven revamp of “Gibraltar,” a song he first released nine years earlier on the album In Concert – Volume One with saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. The tune is a turbo-charged vehicle for searing trumpet improv, where Hubbard unleashes dazzling arpeggiations, slaloming twists and turns, and moaning glissando effects.
Later in the 80s, Hubbard returned to Blue Note; and the self-written title track to his 1987 album Life Flight with its blend of exuberance, athleticism, and melodic swagger showed that the 49-year-old trumpeter sounded as good as ever. He was in top form, too, on “The Moontrane,” duetting with the song’s composer, fellow trumpeter Woody Shaw, on their collaborative project The Eternal Triangle.
In 1993, Hubbard injured his lip playing the trumpet, which then got infected. It put him out of action for some time and led him to alter his playing technique. Even so, he made a comeback in 2007 but a year later died from a heart attack aged 70.
With a rich legacy of multiple classic albums featuring many astonishing performances, Freddie Hubbard was a phenomenal force of nature whose place is assured in the pantheon of all-time jazz greats. Building on the foundations that Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Clifford Brown had laid down before him, he redefined trumpet virtuosity by taking musical skill to a new and often jaw-droppingly high level.
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