Although rather more firmly in the mainstream than some would wish, this album marks a triumphant return to form for a man whose recording career was thought to be over. Four years ago Freddie Hubbard, who had been for many decades just about the hardest working trumpeter in jazz—both in terms of output and approach to his instrument, suffered the setback that all horn players dread. The muscles around the mouth which enable the lips to address the instrument—the “chops”—no longer functioned, weakened by years of over-use. Often there is no way back. However, thanks to a new regime of care and exercise, disaster has been averted and he is once again making some beautiful music. Some of the fire is understandably absent but an enforced mellowness has been turned into an advantage. This is as satisfying a project as any in a long and varied career.
Hubbard switches to flugelhorn for the session, which is made up of some of his best known work (“Red Clay”, “Osie May”, etc.) placed in a stylish new setting. This change to the softer-toned instrument is interesting, but the focus of attention is really on Hubbard as composer and arranger. He emerges firmly on the credit side in both fields, as does co-arranger and producer David Weiss. Together they succeed in bringing an almost swing era feel to numbers that belong spiritually to hard bop roots. It is a very compelling mix and makes for some of the most assured and well-organised jazz of recent times. Praiseworthy as all this is, the real revelation is The New Jazz Composers Octet—a diverse group of players from various wings of the contemporary scene. Though it would have hindered sales, this mini-Big Band really deserved top billing. The soloists are fresh and inventive while the collective playing is simply flawless.
One way to capture the overall feel of this album is think in terms of some of Oliver Nelson’s work in the early sixties. Nelson took some of the leading advanced musicians of the period and gave them relaxed but structured arrangements. The results, on classics like Blues and the Abstract Truth, were masterpieces of controlled modernism. The ambitions of New Colors are rather more modest—and there is more of a Blue Note than an Impulse flavour—nonetheless a similar ambience prevails. Easy but never insipid listening, it is an object lesson in the unity of creativity and craftsmanship.
“One of Another Kind” lays down the blueprint. The band provides a rich set of textures, greatly enhanced by the baritone sax of Chris Karlic. Three soloists, Hubbard, Craig Handy and Myron Walden, then stamp their very different signatures on the tune. Hubbard starts hesitantly but quickly settles into his stride. It is recognisably the same player but a more circumspect version. Handy on tenor is the most classically polished of all current reedsmen. He has a full, stately sound, with a tone even the most traditionally minded can approve of. Walden, in contrast, has all of the nervous energy of his hero Parker. His is the freest playing on offer but it does not jar at all with the more orthodox sounds of the other two. This is the key to the success of the small big band—striking a balance between a coherent ensemble sound and the individual voice. The more varied the individual soloists the richer the rewards but also the greater the dangers. New Colors is pretty much all rewards.
There are two tribute numbers—a surprisingly fast “Blues for Miles” and a Latin-tinged “Dizzy’s Connotations”. They are by no means the high point of the date but do feature Hubbard’s brightest solo work. They also include some fine piano from the very gifted Xavier Davis. This rising star has yet to fully find his own voice, in my opinion, but when he does, expect big things. These are good, solid workman-like pieces, so when I say they are weaker than the rest you can see at what a high altitude this album operates.
“Blue Spirits” for example is utterly charming, replete with lazy swing and infectious melodies. It contains a soprano solo from Handy that is quite stunning while the deep buzz of the baritone makes for some delightful tonal contrasts. The fondly remembered “Red Clay” is given a new and subtle arrangement, actually gaining depth in the process. Similarly, “Osie Mae” is dressed up in classy new clothes and topped off with some fine solo work—from Handy, Hubbard and bassist Dwayne Burno. The title track is turned into a latter-day bebop orchestral workout and jumps joyfully along—the piano in particularly agile form.
The album closes with Corea’s “Inner Space”, made famous by Woody Shaw. Craig Handy again walks away with the honours—he really does deserve to be better known. Warm and resonant, it is fully in keeping with the rest of the album and rounds off the set perfectly. There is a great consistency to the whole project, not in the sense of sameness but in its relaxed but generally upbeat mood. There is both enthusiasm and an assurance in the playing—perhaps a sense of thankfulness that a master has recovered his powers infused the session with more than usual love.
New Colors is a feel good album—short on absolute risk-taking but long on sheer professionalism. I hope it raises the profile of the younger musicians; it certainly welcomes Freddie Hubbard back into the fold. Hubbard has been at the centre of every development in modern jazz since bebop. While there is nothing groundbreaking here to match his forays into free jazz or jazz/funk there is plenty to enjoy. The blend of old and new, of youth and experience and of individual and group performance make this as complete an experience as you will get from contemporary jazz this year. All we need now is news of further releases from the Octet.