The trumpet, she can be a bitch. Lots of trumpet players learn it the hard way—years of playing the instrument high and hard can take its toll on the lip. And in 1992, the fiery hard-bop master Freddie Hubbard pushed too hard, popping his upper lip and then foolishly doing a week at the Blue Note in New York followed by a tour of Europe. Suddenly, his lip was infected, doctors suspected cancer (tests were negative), and playing became tender, painful, even impossible.
The once-prolific Hubbard—who has recorded on upwards of 300 record dates—was slowed tremendously by his injury, to the point of essentially no longer playing. His legacy is too strong to allow him to fade away, however, and in the year 2000 Hubbard was approached by trumpeter and arranger David Weiss of the New Jazz Composers Octet. Weiss got Hubbard to play on the 2001 disc New Colors, where Weiss arranged seven of Hubbard’s distinctive themes, including “One of Another Kind” and “Red Clay”. The composer soloed only on flugelhorn—easier on the lip—but sounded okay.
Skip forward seven years to On the Real Side, the second collaboration between the New Jazz Composers Octet and Hubbard. Here is the same formula: seven more Hubbard tunes, arrangement by Weiss (and a couple of bandmates), Hubbard sitting in on flugelhorn. The result, however, is different. The selected tunes are more classic, and the Octet sounds strong and distinct… but the celebrated star of the show is of severely failing lip.
Not that anyone here is trying to pretend otherwise. Bill Milkowski’s liner note essay is clear: “Decades of Herculean trumpet work have taken their toll on Freddie’s chops.” David Weiss adds, “The chops are not what they were.” And the recording immediately makes clear why these apologies had to be stated up front—Freddie sounds bad. Weiss handles the slashing trumpet leads in the ensemble work—such as the climbing fanfare that opens “Lifeflight”—then Hubbard takes the first solo. It sounds tentative, out of tune, muttered. It’s not embarrassing, because you can still hear Hub’s harmonic imagination and the echo of his round tone, but neither is it merely a matter of technique. With his chops gone, Hubbard has limited choices, and so his solos have a garbled and interrupted quality—his ideas seem to start and stop with a jagged irregularity as the virtuoso’s instincts have to be rerouted by reality.
Hubbard’s problems are made clearer because of context. The New Jazz Composer’s Octet surrounds him with terrific and free-flowing soloists. On “Theme for Kareem”, the leader’s solo is followed by a husky and exuberant statement on tenor sax from Craig Handy, they a brassy punch of the blues from trombonist Steve Davis. Handy reminds us of how flowing Hubbard’s trumpet used to be—one of the few trumpets in jazz that had the liquid quality of a saxophone. Davis outdoes Hubbard in the low range (where the flugelhorn currently restricts him), making more of his instrument’s penchant for growl and gliss.
But the strength of this band as a whole is the very reason to pull it off your shelf. Other fine soloists include Jimmy Greene (tenor and soprano sax), Myron Walden (alto sax), and Xavier Davis (piano). The arrangements are terrific—with the aggressive fleetness of hard bop, but some of the pungent architecture of a big band. On the up-tempo “Take It to the Ozone”, for example, the pumping figure that launches the melody and the spy-movie-esque bass line are both powered at the bottom by baritone sax. Similarly, the lush Latin groove of “Sky Dive” acquires with five horns an Ellington-style counter-melody that it did not have in the original.
In the end, On the Real Side is mainly a tribute to Freddie Hubbard rather than a recording by the man himself. For fans of his work, getting to hear a new and piquant recording of “Gibraltar” is pleasure enough. “Gibraltar” first appeared on Hubbard’s CTI albums in the early 1970s, the period when even his hard blowing was being smothered with too much production, so hearing the tune here in a brassy brawl of swing and groove has got to please. Even the one new tune here, “On the Real Side”, provides a similar pleasure—it’s funky and hip, with Russell Malone playing the role of guitarist George Benson.
It’s going to be tricky, though, to enjoy all this down-home, Blue Note-style swinging when the first solo out of the chute in most cases is a kind of ghost, a shadow of a player who used to dominate even the finest and most competitive records in this style. Quickly enough, the Octet will take over, offering up the fire of Myron Walden or the rhythmic conversation of Xavier Davis. But there remains a decent-sized hole at the center of this Freddie Hubbard tribute project—and darn it if the hole is not the great man’s lip itself, still too tender to ever seem entirely fixed.