Saturday, June 6, 2009

CD of the Day - "Freddie Hubbard: Windjammer"

CD of the Day
Freddie Hubbard: "Windjammer" (Wounded Bird) 1976/2009
US CD release date: June 9, 2009

First ever CD reissue of Hubbard's third album for Columbia, now available thanks to the wise guys at the Wounded Bird label. Jazz historian Douglas Payne says that it's "a Bob James album with special guest soloist Freddie Hubbard." In that sense, I would say that it's Hubbard's equivalent to Hank Crawford's "I Hear A Symphony," recorded around the same time for the Kudu label, and which sounds like "a David Matthews album with special guest soloist Hank Crawford."

Produced by Bob James with his favorite engineer Joe Jorgensen taking care of the technical aspects, sounds very differently from all of Hubbard's previous album, specially from his CTI studio dates done between 1970 and 1973. However, it's very similar to the "new" CTI sound that was dominant on Creed Taylor's label around 1976, when David Matthews replaced both Don Sebesky and Bob James as the main house-arranger, bringing a heavy funky spice to the sessions he was involved in.

Curiously, although they had performed live in several occasions on the CTI All Stars concerts and tours in the USA and abroad (Sony still has the masters of an unreleased fantastic performance from April 20, 1973, at the Madison Square Garden, when Hubbard, James, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, Eric Gale & Stanley Turrentine opened for Deodato's "2001 Space Concert"), Hubbard and James had done only one studio session during their CTI (hey)days. Two cuts from that April 1972 meeting, "People Make The World Go Round" and "Betcha by Golly Wow" were eventually included on "Polar AC," an album of out-takes released by CTI in 1975, when FH had already left CTI.

On "Windjammer," Bob James took control of everything. By "everything" I mean all the opulent arrangements, orchestra conducting, choice of material, musicians, engineer and musical direction, reprising Creed Taylor's approach or "concept," if you like. The all-star cast assembled a la CTI includes Gary King (the stupidly underrated late bass master who is the only musician, along with Hubbard, that plays in all tracks of the album), Steve Gadd, Chris Parker, Andy Newmark, Michael Brecker, Eric Gale, Dave Spinozza, Ralph MacDonald, Ray Mantilla, Hubert Laws, Phil Bodner, George Marge and many more in the brass & string sections, plus Patti Austin and the late Gwen Guthrie among the five backing vocalists.

The only member of Hubbard's touring band at that time that was allowed to take part of the proceedings was George Cables. Even so, Bob James is "the" keyboardist on the session, using acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes, Yamaha YC 30 organ, Hohner clavinet & Arp synthesizer. Bob also contributed with his original "Touch Me Baby" and had the nerve to arrange a beautiful funk-ballad arrangement of "Feelings," the supermellow pop hit composed by Brazilian singer Morris Albert (born Mauricio Alberto) that reached #2 in the Adult Contemporay and #6 in the Pop singles of the Billboard charts in 1975, having been recorded also by other jazzmen like Milt Jackson on his Pablo LP "Feelings," produced by the purist Norman Granz. On James' hands, "Feelings" got a real funky bass line, played by Gary King, contrasting with the subtle woodwinds of the intro and the romantic string passages. Very pleasant music to listen, dance and f***!
Here are some insightful comments borrowed from my dear friend Doug Payne's "Sound Insights" blog:
Some go as far as to say that Hubbard's Columbia period makes his CTI period sound good. Not me. This was some of the first Hubbard I ever heard, as I began buying jazz albums at the time his Columbia albums were initially released, and some of the finest. One LP in particular, Windjammer (1976), my first Hubbard purchase (when I obsessed about collecting anything with Bob James's name on it) remains my favorite Hubbard album of all time, even though I concede that he made many better, more artistic albums.
Simply put, this period contains some spectacular music. Hubbard rarely sounded as good as he did on his Columbia albums. As a player, he was at the very top of his game and he sounded in good form throughout. He is firmly in charge of the proceedings.
Windjammer (1976):. Even in 1976, this record seemed surprising and, to many, hugely disappointing. Hubbard left the auspices of CTI Records in 1973 only to record his most CTI (or Kudu)-like record ever for Columbia in 1976. Turning arrangement, production and, in one case ("Touch Me Baby"), songwriting reins over to keyboardist Bob James, Hubbard seemed to sense that the jazz winds were blowing this way. So, as they say, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em (or as The Simpsons' Mayor Quimby would say, "If that is the way the winds are blowing, let no one say that I don't also blow").
James, who played live behind Hubbard as part of the CTI All Stars several years before and was still recording for CTI himself, was signed in 1975 by Columbia Records to provide A&R services for such acts as Paul Simon, Kenny Loggins, Neil Diamond and Maynard Ferguson. These projects were such huge successes that by 1977, Columbia offered James his own label and Tappan Zee was born.
Windjammer was perhaps the least successful project either Hubbard or James had ever worked on. But not only does it serve as a template for the work James would do at Tappan Zee, it really has some terrifically exciting moments that are hugely memorable - at least when given half the chance. Backed by a typically huge group of New York City studio pros, including soloists Eric Gale, Hubert Laws and Michael Brecker (Patti Austin and Gwen Guthrie are among the vocalists), Hubbard seems at times to be sublimated by James's charts or the occasional vocals. This is particularly true on the album's daft single, the MacDonald/Salter feature "Rock Me Arms," and, to an extent, James's own "Touch Me Baby."
The covers are worth hearing, particularly James's near brilliant arrangement of Gary Wright's "Dream Weaver." Throughout each passage of the song, James perfectly spices the groove with different keyboard effects that work wonders on the basic melody, aided in no small measure by the unmistakable syncopations of Steve Gadd (who also adds his unique zest to "Touch Me Baby"). Hubbard solos magnificently here, seemingly engaged in James's clever take on the song. James also rethinks Morris Albert's dreadful "Feelings" and Hubbard elevates it to a new level that makes you absolutely forget the drivel of the original (Albert's original always reminds me of Carol Burnett as Eunice performing it on "The Gong Show").
The two Hubbard pieces heard here don't rank high among his output but are solid features nonetheless, particularly the title track, which features great solos by Hubbard and Brecker (and an oddly overdubbed passage by James). Both "Windjammer" and "Neo Terra (New Land)" - which, I believe, has been the only song up until now to find its way onto CD - feature Hubbard's keyboardist of the time, George Cables, shamefully buried deep, deep, deep in the background. This is one heck of a good album, warts and all. As a Freddie Hubbard album, it really isn't all that significant or notable (Scott Yanow calls this and 1981's Splash Hubbard's worst records ever). But taken as a Bob James album with special guest soloist Freddie Hubbard, it’s a monster of a good record.

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