On Jan. 27, 1970, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, playing at the peak of his powers after a string of seven brilliant Blue Note albums and three for the Atlantic label, went into the studio to cut his first for Creed Taylor’s CTI label. With Taylor producing, a stellar cast was assembled at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., for three consecutive days of recording. They emerged with Red Clay, an album that would not only define Hubbard’s direction over the next decade while setting the template for all future CTI recordings, but would also have a dramatic impact on a generation of trumpet players coming up in the ’70s.
It was a transitional period in the jazz; the tectonic shift beginning with Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, recorded the previous year. Hubbard’s entry into this crossover territory on Red Clay was characterized by the slyly syncopated beats of drummer Lenny White on the funky 12-minute title track, an infectious groover that was soon covered by budding crossover groups all over America. Essentially an inventive line set to the chord changes of “Sunny,” Bobby Hebb’s hit song from 1966, “Red Clay” would become Hubbard’s signature tune throughout his career. As trumpeter, friend and benefactor David Weiss, who is credited with bringing Hubbard out of self-imposed retirement in the late ’90s, explains, “Later in life Freddie would always announce it as ‘the tune that’s been keeping me alive for the last 30 years.’ We played ‘Red Clay’ every night and he would quote ‘Sunny’ over it every night.”
Weiss and the New Jazz Composers Octet backed Hubbard on two recordings (2001’s New Colors and 2008’s On the Real Side) in addition to playing several gigs with him. As he notes, “What struck me when I went back to check out ‘Red Clay’ was how loose it is. It’s killing but kind of raw, and it goes on for over 12 minutes … not like what you would expect from what gets tailored to be a jazz hit.”
That looseness can be attributed in large part to drummer White, whose wide beat and interactive instincts characterize the track. “Freddie always credited Lenny with that,” says Weiss. “He said Lenny came up with the beat and that he himself had nothing to do with it. He was always happy to give Lenny credit on that track.”
White, who had just turned 20 a month before the Red Clay sessions, was in the midst of an extremely productive period as a young drummer coming up on the scene. Two months earlier (Nov. 7-14, 1969) he had played on Andrew Hill’s Passing Ships for Blue Note. Before that (Aug. 19-21, 1969) he had participated in Miles Davis’ landmark Bitches Brew sessions. Later in 1970, he would play on two other cutting-edge albums: Joe Henderson’s If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem for Milestone (Sept. 24-26) and Woody Shaw’s Blackstone Legacy for Contemporary (Dec. 8-9). “I had gotten a call from Freddie asking me if I wanted to do a record date,” recalls White. “Freddie Hubbard’s a hero to me, so naturally I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to.’ But then I asked him a stupid question. I said, ‘Who’s on it?’ And he said, ‘Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Joe Henderson.’ When he said that, inside I was screaming but outside I tried to stay cool: ‘Oh, right. No problem.'”
Hubbard directed White to show up at Van Gelder’s studio on the morning of Jan. 27. But as he was setting up his drums and trying them out, he encountered a problem. “I had this bass drum which was made from a big oil can. This guy who made it for me had fashioned it into an actual drum. He shaved off the edges and made hoops and everything. It’s the same drum I used on Bitches Brew. But as soon as I hit it, Ron Carter said, ‘No, man. That’s not gonna work. That drum is too resonant.’ So we went in the back where Rudy had a whole bunch of equipment stored. And Rudy pulled out this 26- or 28-inch bass drum that had a painting of a moonlit lake on it. I thought it sounded horrible. But that’s the bass drum that I played on the session, and for 10 years after that record came out I didn’t listen to it because I hated the way I sounded on it. It was a traumatic thing for me, because here I got an opportunity to play with all my heroes and I had to play this horrible drum. I thought I didn’t sound good so I didn’t listen to it for so long.”
Carter’s memory of this scenario is detailed in his ArtistShare biography, Finding the Right Notes, by noted jazz writer Dan Ouellette:
“I told Lenny, ‘Listen, Rudy is ready to walk up the stairs and leave and then we’d be done,'” said Ron. “We’d been there for two hours, and it was obvious the steel drums weren’t working. The song wasn’t going anywhere. Freddie was getting more and more anxious, Joe Henderson was just waiting for something to happen. The energy was dissipating, attitudes were starting to show up and the vibe was turning strange.”
Outside Ron tried to talk sense to Lenny, who still wanted to use the pans. “I can appreciate you want to get your sound,” said Ron. “But playing in the studio isn’t like playing in a club. Certain things don’t apply. In this case, your drums don’t apply. My recommendation to get some real music going here is to stash that drum in your trunk. We can’t keep doing this. I won’t keep doing this. We don’t want to be doing take 503 with that drum.”
Forty years later, trumpeter Randy Brecker is amused to learn about the whole drum controversy surrounding Red Clay. “My first thought after hearing that album back then was, ‘It sure doesn’t sound like the drums that Lenny would normally play … especially the bass drum. Something was really weird with that. The bass drum sounded real dull and kind of separated from the rest of the kit, like it was out in the middle of nowhere somehow.”
Brecker’s second impression of Red Clay concerned the presence of the young drummer amidst all those celebrated jazz veterans. “Lenny was in our small inner circle of younger guys who were jamming all the time at Dave Liebman’s place or at Mike Garson’s place. Lenny is a few years younger than me. The first time I played with him he was 17. And, to me, to see him playing on a record with Ron, Herbie, Joe and Freddie was like, ‘Wow!’ Because these were the higher-echelon cats. It was a big break for Lenny to actually be playing with them, so I was really happy about the fact that he was on that record. I didn’t know he had done this session until I had bought Red Clay, so it was a thrill to see that he had made it, so to speak.”
In the studio, Hubbard had no specific direction for the young drummer on the Red Clay session. As White recalls, “He just said, ‘Man, I need a beat. Gimme a beat.’ And that was it. So I came up with a beat and I put a triplet feel in there, and nobody has ever picked up on that. Everybody who played that tune after me didn’t actually get that beat right because they didn’t put that triplet feel in.”
White’s loosely syncopated, interactive approach to the kit-a kind of marriage between Clyde Stubblefield’s locked-down, funky-drummer signature with James Brown and Roy Haynes’ unpredictable yet bop-rooted approach-ultimately went against the grain of Creed Taylor’s slicker tendencies that came to define the CTI sound throughout the ’70s. As White recalls, “I did another CTI date with Freddie after that [1974’s Polar AC, Hubbard’s last recording for the label]. But Creed didn’t call me for a lot of record dates, because I think he really wanted a more structured and tight beat.”
White also reveals that he was not the first choice for the Red Clay sessions. “The inside story on this-and this is what I had gotten from Wallace Roney, who had talked with Tony Williams about it-[was that] apparently Freddie had originally called Tony to do the record, but Miles was kind of upset with that rhythm section playing on other people’s albums and making everybody else sound good. So Tony decided that he wasn’t going to do it, and he recommended me for the session. And it turned out to be a really nice opportunity for me, even though I did hate my bass drum sound on that record.”
The rest of this article appears in the September 2010 issue of JazzTimes.