Monday, July 11, 2011

CD Reissue of the Week - "Freddie Hubbard: Straight Life"

CD Reissue of the Week
Freddie Hubbard: "Straight Life" (CTI/Sony Masterworks) 1971/2011

***** (musical performance)
****1/2 (recording & mix; I only regret that Ron's bass was mixed too low on "Here's That Rainy Day," to the point that most of the reviews about the album refer to that track as a duet between Hubbard and Benson)
****1/2 (despite the tape hiss heard on "Here's That Rainy Day" on the left channel)

Produced by Creed Taylor
Recorded & Mixed by Rudy Van Gelder
Front Cover Photographs by Pete Turner
Liner Photos by Chuck Stewart
Album Design by Bob Ciano
Total Time 36:35

Reissue Produced by Richard Seidel
Mastering Engineers: Mark Wilder & Maria Triana @ Battery Studios, NYC

Freddie Hubbard's second album for CTI, "Straight Life," recorded in a single day session on November 16, 1970, followed "Red Clay" with another stellar cast: tenor sax giant Joe Henderson (on his heyday, when he was doing great but extremely underrated albums for Milestone like my personal favorite "Black is the Color," with a wild approach that sounds very different from the smoothness of the work in his last years), Herbie Hancock on Fender Rhodes, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Jack DeJohnette, guitarist George Benson, and percussionists Richard "Pablo" Landrum (triangle, congas, books) and Weldon Irvine (playing tambourine as if he was in a trance.)

That was Landrum's second & final session for CTI (he had previously appeared on Stanley Turrentine's "Sugar") and Irvine's first & last session for the label, although he would write two tunes for Stanley Turrentine's reunion with Milt Jackson on "Cherry." For "Straight Life," he contributed the acid-jazz anthem "Mr. Clean," revisited by the 2009 incarnation of the CTI All Stars during their European tour that year and included on the "Montreux Jazz Festival" DVD. Hubbard's title track is outstanding too, and there's a pretty version of the standard "Here's That Rainy Day" performed only by the leader on flugelhorn, Carter on bass and Benson on the guitar.
Jazz historian Douglas Payne posted a great comment on his "Sound Insight" blog:

Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s second CTI album is one of his very best. Coming on the heels of the classic Red Clay, a tough act to follow, no doubt, Straight Life more than compensates with two long blowing tunes and a sublime ballad performance that ranks as one of the best in the trumpeter’s entire discography. It is a landmark of 70’s jazz and one that Billboard aptly enthused perfectly “bridges the gap of modern and traditional styles,” adding that “Hubbard’s trumpet is exquisite and all of the other musicians complement each other to great extremes.”

Few better – or more – words can explain what makes a great jazz album great.

Originally released in January 1971, Straight Life confirms not only that CTI was on the right track (Hubbard’s record was the label’s 12th LP release) but, more importantly, that Creed Taylor was a force to be reckoned with in shaping the ideal of what jazz could achieve during the 1970s. But good as the music and the musicianship might be, the record was hard to program into bite-size radio formats and, in the end, it probably didn’t perform as well for Hubbard or the label as it ought to have.

Straight Life reunites much of the team responsible for the solid music of Red Clay, including saxophonist Joe Henderson (first heard with Hubbard on the trumpeter’s 1965 album Blue Spirits), keyboard player Herbie Hancock (who featured Hubbard on many of his early solo records, including his 1963 debut Takin’ Off) and ubiquitous bassist extraordinaire Ron Carter, adding guitarist George Benson and percussionist Richard “Pablo” (Richie) Landrum to the mix. Jack DeJohnette replaces Red Clay’s Lenny White.

It’s a dream-team of heavy-hitting modern players to be sure. But it’s interesting to note that Hubbard, Henderson, Hancock, Carter and DeJohnette had earlier contributed to Hancock’s 1966 Blow Up soundtrack and Hubbard would later re-group with Henderson, Benson, Carter, DeJohnette and fellow CTI alum Hubert Laws for the trumpeter’s lovely “To Her Ladyship” from 1978’s Super Blue.

Up first is Freddie Hubbard’s 17-minute jam tune “Straight Life,” with Hancock comping gloriously on Fender Rhodes and Jack DeJohnette firing rapidly on all pistons, more like a rock drummer than a jazz drummer, but definitely a part of the song’s frenetic action. Landrum must have had to work overtime to keep up. The song is almost like a funked-up bossa. Henderson solos magnificently in a trademark style that mixes the power and fury with the passion and fire of his unappreciated and undervalued Milestone albums of the period. Henderson’s solo nearly decimates Hubbard’s own solo – nothing shabby, but hardly matching the intensity of the song’s other performers. Hancock then solos in the funky melodic style he established on Fat Albert’s Rotunda (no spacey interludes here), followed by Benson providing an almost intellectual interjection that still has the warm soulful passion that seems to suggest the composer wanted to alternate Henderson and Hancock’s jazzier interludes with Hubbard’s and Benson’s soulful passages. A percussion workout ensues to bring it all back home.

Weldon Irvine (1943-2002) joins the cast on tambourine (!) and contributes the memorable “Mr. Clean,” a perfect vehicle for Hubbard’s fiery horn antics – which are at their very best here – and the band, which crafts a singularly sample-worthy and Hubbard-esque groove, rock this thing out. Hubbard, Henderson, Hancock and Benson all solo beautifully. Irvine would wax the tune again several months later with Richard “Groove” Holmes on the B-3 great’s Comin’ On Home and later on his own 1972 solo debut Liberated Brother. Each version of the tune sounds considerably different than Hubbard’s take, suggesting that Creed Taylor knew precisely how to keep everybody on target and in line. It’s worth noting that one of Irvine’s earliest recordings outside of his stint as Nina Simone’s musical director, is “Can’t Let Her Go” from Freddie Hubbard’s 1968 album High Blues Pressure.

(Given the strength of Weldon Irvine’s additional contributions to the CTI legacy, namely “Sister Sanctified” – later renamed “Funkfathers” without proper credit – and “Introspective,” both from Stanley Turrentine’s 1972 CTI classic, Cherry, it’s surprising the pianist/composer/arranger was never provided an opportunity to work more extensively with CTI, a label that even recorded Nina Simone in the years after Irvine left her employ.)

Straight Life closes out with an extraordinarily lovely performance of “Here’s That Rainy Day,” the 1953 song by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen from the forgotten Broadway musical Carnival in Flanders. Even by 1970, when this version was recorded, the song had become a jazz standard and a favorite among pop singers, particularly Frank Sinatra, who first recorded the song in 1959 and performed it often in concert on his many TV specials. Producer Creed Taylor had also recorded the song on productions for Stan Getz, Kai Winding, Wes Montgomery, Astrud Gilberto and Walter Wanderley, so it’s fair to assume that he too liked the song just as much. In this reading, Hubbard, on flugelhorn, is paired with only guitarist George Benson and bassist Ron Carter for a truly inspired take that warrants classic status. While it’s probably no surprise that “Here’s That Rainy Day” was issued as the album’s single, it’s probably less surprising that this lovely jazz instrumental didn’t turn into a hit when Elton John’s “Your Song” and Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” ruled the airwaves.

For whatever reason, Straight Life is graced by not one but two Pete Turner photographs, a rarity in the CTI discography, as was the trumpeter’s follow-up album First Light. The photographer has no idea why designer Bob Ciano juxtaposed these two photographs. But he clearly approves. The front cover is called “Liberty” (1962), a double exposure. “I went to the Battery and shot [the Statue of Liberty] with a long lens for the small image,” explains Turner. “Then I took the boat to Liberty Island and kept shooting as we got closer and closer. The airplane flying by was just luck.” The back cover, “Parthenon” (1964), was from a series the photographer produced cataloging various wonders of the world, but “not picture-postcard style, more interpretative.” The abstract take on monuments honoring the Roman goddess of freedom (Libertas) and the Greek goddess of wisdom (Athena) has a curiously perfect relationship to the music of Straight Life.

"Straight Life" can be ordered from Dusty Groove through the link below:

And that's what they say about the CD:

An amazing second CTI set from Freddie Hubbard – one that takes off nicely from Red Clay territory, and starts to hit an even funkier mode! The tracks here are all relatively long, with a huge amount of solo space for Freddie on trumpet, Joe Henderson on tenor, George Benson on guitar, and Herbie Hancock on piano. The title track "Straight Life" has a style that's quite searing and righteous at points – almost some of Freddie's boldest playing on record from the time. It's followed by an excellent take on Weldon Irvine's "Mr Clean" – one that's rompingly funky while still as righteous as the work on side long title track – played with some great electric piano from Herbie and sweet guitar lines from Benson. The set closes with a mellow take on "Here's That Rainy Day", played in a way that reminds us of Hubbard's more lyrical style – but still with plenty of CTI 70s overtones. © 2011, Dusty Groove America, Inc.

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