Hubbard, like Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd and Booker Little, was an heir to Clifford Brown's searing, rapid-fire trumpet style. Often paired with Hank Mobley and Wayne Shorter on Blue Note recordings, Hubbard also recorded with Art Blakey [pictured] and the Jazz Messengers in the early and mid-1960s.
While Hubbard was frequently a key ingredient on other musicians' recording dates, he was equally brilliant as a session leader. A firm, creative songwriter, Hubbard's compositions had a melodic and rhythmic complexity that captured the decade's intellectual curiosity and urgency.
Throughout his career, Hubbard could swing effortlessly at breakneck speeds, adding power surges in the mid-range, not just at the top of a run. Hubbard also was artful on ballads, blending soulful tenderness with a chrome-like vibrato and carefully slurred notes. On standards, Hubbard often snapped apart the melodies of well-known songs like a Calder sculpture—without letting their established beauty slip through his fingers.
Despite coming up through the jazz ranks at a time when Miles Davis cast a long shadow over the jazz trumpet scene, Hubbard [pictured] managed to forge his own identity, giving his playing a tightly wrapped articulation. His warm aggression made him a favorite of many leading musicians of the period who found they could reach new levels of playing when challenged by Hubbard's energetic horn. Blowing power was important to Hubbard, but so was free thinking and a love of the blues, all of which he could incorporate into a single solo.
In appraising Hubbard's work on disc, one comes to the realization that in the 1960s the trumpeter never made a bad album, either as a leader or a sideman. With Hubbard during this period, there were only great performances and even greater ones. In my conversation earlier this year with producer Creed Taylor [pictured], the founder of Impulse Records looked back on Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961) and singled out Hubbard:
JazzWax: Did you realize at the time that Blues and the Abstract Truth was going to be a classic?
Creed Taylor: Sure. The album was an epic in my life. Freddie Hubbard had the most magnificent solos on there.
Hubbard's sideman recordings alone are remarkable. Between just 1957 and 1961, Hubbard appeared on John Coltrane's The Believer, Eric Dolphy's Outward Bound, Kenny Drew's Undercurrent, Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Dexter Gordon's Doin' Alright and Coltrane's Africa Brass and Ole.
Hubbard's Jazz Messengers period from 1961 to 1965 teamed him with Wayne Shorter and resulted in Mosaic, Three Blind Mice, Buhaina's Delight and several other classic recordings.
Then starting at the tail end of 1964 and continuing through October of 1965, Hubbard recorded a stunning streak of monumental jazz albums as a sideman. These recordings included Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil, Hank Mobley's The Turnaround, Andrew Hill's One for One, Quincy Jones' The Pawnbroker soundtrack, Shorter's The Soothsayer, Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage, Bobby Hutcherson's Dialogue and Components, Coltrane's Ascension and Shorter's All Seeing Eye. Not bad for a year's work.
Hubbard's own dates as a leader in the 1960s were just as extraordinary from both playing and composing perspectives. Among his classic dates were Open Sesame, Hub-Tones, Goin' Up and Ready for Freddie, which in my opinion is an underappreciated game-changing jazz album. On this 1961 album, we hear three Hubbard originals, one by Shorter and a standard, Weaver of Dreams. The importance of Ready for Freddie rests in its tension. Unlike previous hard bop albums, the tracks here break new melodic ground and set the stage for Shorter's Speak No Evil recorded three years later. We hear Hubbard and Shorter feed off each other creatively, with Bernard McKinney on euphonium, Art Davis on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. We also hear a brilliant McCoy Tyner, who had just finished recording six powerful albums with John Coltrane. On Ready for Freddie, Hubbard's hot metal sound is countered by Shorter's velvet sledgehammer, and there's a clean articulation throughout.
Starting in 1970, Hubbard began a multi-year relationship with Creed Taylor's newly founded CTI Records. The first recording was Red Clay, a masterpiece that many consider to be the trumpeter's A Love Supreme. A series of albums for CTI followed in the early 1970s, with Hubbard becoming one of the label's best-selling artists. He won a Grammy for First Light in 1972. Hubbard continued to record throughout the 1980s, but in 1992 he was sidelined after severely damaging and infecting his lip. In recent years, Hubbard attempted a comeback, recording On the Real Side a year ago. [Pictured: Creed Taylor and Freddie Hubbard; photo by Chuck Stewart]
Ultimately, it's Hubbard's classic period from 1960 to 1970 that remains the most remarkable. During this decade, Hubbard provoked, challenged and dared—without ever sacrificing beauty or soul. Along the way, he also changed the art form, putting extreme heat back into an instrument that Miles Davis had cooled off.
JazzWax video clip: Here's Hubbard on Benny Golson's I Remember Clifford. Listen as Hubbard neatly avoids falling into the trap of sounding like dozens of other trumpet players who have played the standard in the past...