Jazz has been compared to basketball more than once because of the way the players have to work together around a common theme while, mostly, improvising. It’s not a bad analogy. If jazz is basketball, then trumpeter Freddie Hubbard was one of those flashy, driving guards who specialized in circus moves and wild shots, trying to score 50 points every time he hit the hardwood. He had a subtler game too—a beautiful way with a ballad, like a sweet no-look pass—but mostly Hubbard was all about acrobatics, playing high and fast and hard.
Pinnacle is a previously unreleased batch of recordings from 1980, live at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner, that feature Hubbard at his most athletic and show-offy. For other players, that might not result in great art, but Hubbard was all about making his flash into substance. He didn’t play this way for its own sake but more because his art was built on stretching the horn to its expressive limits. And so Pinnacle is a fine pleasure, a great artist being wonderfully himself.
The two bands featured here were not among the best the man played with. Hub was a veteran of one of the finest editions of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and he would play with giants like Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams and Woody Shaw even later in his career. Here, his best foil is pianist Billy Childs, whose solos have fire and great invention. Larry Klein is on bass, a trombonist named Phil Ranelin acquits himself nicely, and then different dates feature either David Schnitter or Hadley Caliman on tenor saxophone and Eddie Marshall or Sinclair Lott on drums. Mostly, these dates were vehicles for Hubbard to tear up some of the tunes with which he was most associated over the years.
The repertoire runs a decent gamut. Jazz fans of the purer variety will dig Hubbard’s “Blues For Duane”, which features an astonishing trumpet solo that begins with expressive smears, shifts into sharp double-time runs, and then results in the rhythm section shifting to double-time as well for a long romp that Hubbard then cools back down into a hard-grooving return. Wow. This also marks the only recording we have of Hubbard playing Coltrane’s famously tricky “Giant Steps”. The band takes it at a classic, blistering pace, and Hubbard is a waterfall of ideas for five full, burning minutes. Double wow.
Two of the leader’s best hard bop tunes are here as well: “The Intrepid Fox” from Red Clay and “One of Another Kind” from Hubbard’s time in the VSOP all-star quintet. It’s nice to get another listen to “Another Kind”, which has a great, dancing quality over the opening bass line and then breaks into a complex melodic statement. Only the solo sections (and not all of them) use straight-ahead swing, for a tasty set of contrasts.
1980 was a very “Rolling Stones” point in Hubbard’s career. That is, he hadn’t released much good new music in quite a while, but he was still a stellar performer. The year saw the release of the last of his mostly miserable Columbia albums (this major label picked him up in 1974, right around the time that its real jazz trumpet star, Miles Davis, went into a self-imposed period of drugged-out silence. In 1981, Miles was back with Columbia and Hubbard—who’d done precious little to earn Columbia’s confidence—was OUT). So it’s great to hear the band working out so brilliantly on the loping-to-burning “First Light” from the 1971 CTI album of the same name. But the newer material—such as “Happiness is Now” from the then-fresh Columbia farewell album, Skagly—is subpar.
As with all Hubbard performances, there is a fine ballad, in this case Michel LeGrand’s “The Summer Knows”. Hubbard, despite his virtuosity, was always great on slower tunes. His opening cadenza is full of awesome, ripping runs, but he settles luxuriously into the melancholy melody. Childs frames him with great interest on piano, and the acoustic playing from Klein (better known these days as a producer in pop circles and as husband to Luciana Souza and ex-Mr. Joni Mitchell) is outstanding. When the band swings this ballad in the middle of Hubbard’s solo, they sound as confident and strong as a jazz quartet could.
After 1980, Freddie Hubbard would continue to play brilliantly for a period, but his bold, hard playing took a toll. He suffered a burst and then infected lip in 1992, and his art was never the same. Heart disease took him in 2008, and he suffered in his later years, financially and otherwise. It’s great, then, to get this message from Freddie’s past. Not his greatest playing, perhaps, but maybe not far off. The sound quality is hardly optimal, but so what? For an hour, Hubbard is a back, badder than pretty much any 2011 trumpeter, and seems fully alive.
Pinnacle comes by its title at least half-fairly. It’s a slice of what made him great at a time when everything was still possible and when he could draw on all his best stuff. Michael Jordan in the mid-‘90s, dropping an easy 50 points on the Knicks, if you will. Gone but not forgotten.