05/02/07

Freddie Hubbard and Friends

By now the troubles Freddie Hubbard (pictured) has had with his lip have been reported extensively enough that fans know not to expect the bravura fireworks of his peak years. But they also know that they are going to see a legend surrounded by a crack outfit comprised of Hubbard’s peers and younger notables, revisiting his major contributions to the history of jazz through a parade of his classic compositions. Whatever Hubbard can give on top of that, by way of playing or reminiscing or just being there—being the one and only Freddie Hubbard—is gravy.

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Nick Ruechel

Freddie Hubbard

At this first set at Iridium, Hubbard’s playing was suffering from the exertions of the previous nights. Nevertheless, it proved to be an enjoyable set from an impressive band that included, in addition to Hubbard and his flugelhorn, trumpeter/organizer David Weiss, James Spaulding on alto; Craig Handy on tenor, Steve Davis on trombone, and the top-shelf rhythm section of pianist George Cables, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Joe Chambers.

Opening with “One of Another Kind,” Hubbard was clearly experiencing some difficulties during his first solo. As he warmed up, though, he ventured some punctuating bursts into the upper register, resulting in more fluid lines. But this would prove to be his biggest exertion of the night. After completing the song, he described the pain he was in from a pinched nerve in his neck, and largely confined himself to a few measures at a time before giving someone else the nod.

The band more than compensated. Cables’ fast runs and light comping and Spaulding’s ragged-edged, burnished blowing had all the fire and feeling of hard-bop at its best. Paired with the thrilling drive of McBride and Chambers working together, it was clear from the first tune that it was going to be a good night.

“Blue Spirits,” in 3/4 time, had a nice soul/jazz feel, accented by Spaulding’s flute playing and McBride’s funky bass. Weiss played strong, tart lead trumpet, then Hubbard offered a solo that briefly developed into a satisfying melodic exploration, but was soon aborted. Cables slid in and stole the show with a rapid-fire solo that built to an eruption of triplets, moving up the keyboard, accented and grounded by his nimble chording.

Between tunes, Hubbard reminisced as he introduced the band, doting on his long friendships with Cables, Spaulding and Chambers. By the time the band lit into “Jodo,” the full effect of Hubbard’s compositions began to hit home. Every one was a great blowing song, but also rooted in the tradition of jazz as popular music, with enough funk, melody and feeling to be more than simply a vehicle for soloing.

“Jodo” they took fast, and Spaulding flew through a solo, throwing off quotes from “Donna Lee” and “Night in Tunisia.” Handy responded with his best playing of the night on an expressive solo that perfectly rode the swelling of the rhythm section behind him. Weiss followed with an equally exciting solo, peppery and to the point, and with a biting edge. Davis didn’t quite catch the feel of the tune, and Hubbard and Chambers traded fours before Chambers lit up the room with a snare-centered solo.

They closed with “Red Clay,” for which Hubbard took over the piano, explaining, “Let me show you how I wrote this.” Hubbard’s playing was rudimentary, but he was clearly enjoying himself. The band came in with Christian McBride smiling in wonder as the trumpeter picked out a solo and even sang a few notes.

When Hubbard stood up, Cables slid back onto the bench and the song gelled into the perfect easygoing blower it is, rolling out like a moving sidewalk through an ever-changing landscape. McBride unleashed a stunning solo, seemingly an extension of the kind of fast playing generally seen on the electric bass, but still funky, soulful and melodic. Hubbard several times picked up his horn as if to solo but simply played a note or a very short phrase before putting it down again.

Toward the end of a long version of the song, Hubbard picked up the microphone and began singing, “Keep yourself together,” over and over. Walking over to Spaulding, he held out the mike so they could sing the line together a few times before Weiss gave the signal to bring it to a close.

The band had stretched the set to a relatively long, and thoroughly enjoyable, hour and a half. Hubbard had reportedly played better the previous two nights, but obviously still enjoyed being on stage in front of an audience with his old friends. For the audience it was a pleasure to be allowed to look in on such a reunion.

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