Let’s play a game of trumpet without any of us having to play trumpet, shall we? Favorite trumpet player as a trumpet player: Who you got?
That line of inquiry, when it comes to trumpeters, can be a revealing device. I would expect that a lot of people opt for Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, or Clifford Brown, rather than, say, Miles Davis. We look at our trumpeters as technicians, more so than with any other kind of jazz instrumentalist, save maybe drummers.
Tenor saxophonists, regardless of their chops, tend to be evaluated as overall shapers of sound, band leaders, composers, or note-based architects. Miles Davis could burn through scalar runs with near matchless dexterity in his prime, then convert his horn into a carving blade and remove your heart from your chest with a ballad. And yet, because of how many times he overhauled the possibilities of music, touched off new genres and mini-genres, and coerced career-best performances from his bandmates—who doubled as his acolytes—we look past Davis‘s technical proficiencies rather than focus on them. It’s the nature of the trumpet beast. Your technique gets the attention, or else what you pioneered in the larger sense. It’s rare that we knit up what is often two halves of the same whole.
Louis Armstrong represents the exemplar of that totality, in part because his initial scene-bursting was entirely about technique, one that still blows minds when you focus on how he fashioned the sounds he did. There is this odd, but not displeasing, post-human vibe: like Armstrong was made of extra stuff compared to any other horn man, a dollop of the alien that felt so damn good on Earth.
Armstrong’s singing was an offshoot of his trumpet playing, another technical marvel, done unconventionally. No one played that way, no one sang that way, and taken in tandem, a kind of double negative—in terms of our expectations—became the ultimate musical positive. Major win-win. Armstrong’s success was a form of artistic pandemic: uncontainable, with a broad-chested populism built, paradoxically, on technical nuance that would have given Paganini pause.
His timing was perfect—popular music was ripe for new directions. Armstrong was the spearhead of an exciting new medium in the way that Elvis Presley would later be—and after having achieved his success, he essentially dispensed with innovation, not unlike Eric Clapton post-1970, playing brilliantly, night in, night out, and on literally hundreds of sessions. But those initial deep kisses of pure, “I would die for you” newness, became friendly, firm handshakes instead. One knew what one was getting with Armstrong, after the last of the Decca sessions, in 1946.
If we’re talking about the 1960s, the same cannot be said regarding Freddie Hubbard, a trumpeter unlike any trumpet player in jazz’s history, the ultimate musical straddler in an era that popped and thrummed with innovations—who also nudged titans in a manner no one else seemed able to, save multi-instrumentalist and ace afflatus Eric Dolphy—who deserves titan status himself, though he is rarely granted it because of the “the trumpet player with mega chops” conundrum. But with the banner campaign like the one Hubbard had in 1964, the trumpeter didn’t just merely have a year to write home about; he had reason to buy out the stationary store such that he’d have sheaves a’plenty to detail the sonic realms he had helped remake.
Let’s start with those Hubbard chops, because they’re clearly what drummer/bandleader Art Blakey fell for the hardest when he cast Hubbard in his Jazz Messengers unit. In the hard bop universe, where the tightness of the band would double as the loftiest of virtues, the Messengers were the ultimate purveyors of the ethos. Soul-drenched, unified, ever-pacey; they were a unit who could intimidate via sheer cohesion. Some of the biggest of the big boys passed through their ranks—Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan—but they didn’t create the core masterpieces of their career in this context, because that’s not what the Blakey bands were necessarily about. They were about max-functional jazz, a night’s rip-snortin’ entertainment, a blowing away of blues, impetus for the kicking up of heels, and burgeoning joie de vivre soundtracked by ensemble virtuosity.
Hubbard replaced Morgan in the Jazz Messengers in 1961. His avidity was perfect for their sound, though it was but one part of his. In film, Orson Welles proved that it was the long take that separated the masters from the would-be masters. Writing guru William Zinsser claimed that if you wanted to write long sentences, be a genius. These are some differentiators between the seminal—sires of revolution—and the merely great and good. In jazz trumpet playing, it is one’s speed that partially lionizes the immortals. That would make Freddie Hubbard the Nolan Ryan of trumpeters. For sheer technique, only Dizzy Gillespie shares a phylum. In his early 1960s prime, Hubbard could shower a listener with more notes than it felt like they could count, yet he never sounds disordered. It was as though he just thought faster than everyone else, the possessor of a pristine pipeline—a veritable Gulf Stream of creativity—between brain and embouchure.
There may be no more natural trumpet player in all of jazz, but while someone else with Hubbard’s awe-inducing delivery might have fashioned a career on splashy “look at me” moves, he was not only a consummate, team player, but the era’s best glue guy. Freddie Hubbard did something no other trumpet player in jazz history has done or shown they were able to do. Not Miles, not Don Cherry, not Clifford Brown, not Kenny Dorham, not Booker Little—who might have come the closest, but died before we could really know.
Hubbard ruled hard bop trumpet playing. His slick, glassy, well-oiled tone, with its summer sun shower hue, had citrine sheen and seraphic swagger, as he also dispensed stick-to-your-ribs notes that simultaneously, paradoxically, lightened steps. He was untouchable for pure, in-the-groove playing: a jazz musician who taught rock and roll guitarists about rhythm and the unlikely off-beats one might accentuate to make a song have a certain surge. I bet Ray Charles and Chuck Berry weren’t strangers to Freddie Hubbard. That he then turned around—sometimes in the same week—and became a totally different player, like he had slipped out of his skin, his identity, and morphed into a free jazz harbinger of the New Thing is what made Hubbard Hubbard. No other trumpet player went back and forth like this. It just was not done.
Ornette Coleman recruited Hubbard for his Free Jazz detonation in December 1960, but this was a large sound, what we might think of as a sound vortex whose swallowing of surrounding matter was its own sound. This was jazz’s version of a musical Book of Revelation to kick off the new decade. Coleman clearly trusted Hubbard, but he’s rarely at the fore of this music; no one is (though Hubbard’s solo proves matchless on this day). But a precedent had been made: when you were looking to innovate, give Freddie Hubbard a call. Or when you wanted to groove.
Hubbard returned to hard bop, leading sessions that produced various trumpet benchmarks—Hub Cap, Ready for Freddie (both 1961), Hub-Tones (1962). Come 1964, he was ready to tussle with new forms again. Something wonderful happens on February 25, 1964. Eric Dolphy, who was a lot closer to being Hubbard’s spiritual artistic cousin than we generally realize now, brought the trumpeter into the fold of his Out to Lunch! quintet, a band—with Dolphy on alto and bass clarinet, Richard Davis on bass, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Tony Williams on drums, and of course our man doing his trumpet thang—that I’ll put up against any small unit in history.
Dolphy was more of a visionary one might argue than Coltrane or Davis, though he reaped nowhere near the amount of their credit. Trane in particular followed Dolphy’s lead, and the latter had a knack for making the tenor saxophonist braver in his own explorations. Goosing Trane’s genius and asking more from it.
From the opening “Hat and Beard,” it is plain—potently—that Hubbard, in his turn, is going to lead a lot of the charge for Dolphy. His solo on the cut is a statement-maker; these are trumpet-based sheets of sound—Hubbard had a propensity for making his bell-tones sound like they are backed by metal panels thundered by hammers—and he is both on the beat, off the beat, and around the beat, his trumpet becoming its own form of musical pulse, but still set within the heart rhythms of the ensemble. This is fiery, brainy stuff.
Dolphy was a musical amphibian—give him land, give him sea, he was good to go, if by land we mean a kind of post-bop, and sea the waters of Free Jazz. Hubbard was similar, which is why I think if Booker Little hadn’t paired with Dolphy for the 1961 Five Spot recordings, Hubbard would have made an arresting partner. On “Straight Up and Down,” back on Out to Lunch!, note how Hubbard sounds double-tracked. He’s not, but his attack could be that expansive; at times, he is the rhythm section, not the Williams/Davis/Hutcherson grouping.
He’s also Dolphy’s secret weapon, and it is Hubbard who allows Dolphy to infiltrate all corners and stretches of the soundscape with his unique, coloristic approach. Dolphy, we might say, can shade the table, because Hubbard has done yeoman’s work—that of a virtuosic, feeling yeoman—to set it.
What was in the air for Freddie Hubbard in February 1964? A couple weeks before his Dolphy date, he marked studio time with Art Blakey for the record that became Free for All. Blakey understood what provided his bread and cheese, and usually complied with it: in the pocket—the comfy pocket—hard bop.
Wayne Shorter was sowing creative oats at this point—he’d be with Miles Davis soon enough, for a subsequent leg of his explorations. Shorter wasn’t a man to take music too far out, but he did his fair share of exploring, and this, coupled with Hubbard’s range of stylistic motion, meant that Blakey was able to push beyond the normal boundaries of his music.
Hubbard wrote the album’s penultimate track, “The Core,” as a Civil Rights anthem fused with what’s tantamount to a concerto for trumpet. He was one confident dude at the time, intimating, in an interview, that the number encapsulated jazz’s central values and abiding concerns, hence its title.
It’s a mini-jazz symphony, awash in Blakey’s polyrhythms, charged with Shorter’s riffage, gussied by Curtis Fuller’s trombone, which is appropriate, as he was perhaps his instrument’s representative, at the time, of a Hubbard type. Time signatures float around a central pulse, like the heartbeat of a river. Down we float, down we are carried, by the voice of the trumpet man, a former landsman who can go hydrologic as easy as you please.
In the summer, Hubbard set trumpet aside and picked up his cornet for Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles. With Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums, this was Miles Davis’s rhythm section. Hubbard is the lead voice on the album—or, at least, its co-lead voice. His cornet voice doesn’t have the same sustain as his trumpet voicings; notes are of a shorter duration, but that means their refractory period is quicker, too. If anything, Hubbard is nimbler than usual, a smoked woodiness to his tone, and if the early Louis Armstrong had joined up with the Blue Note label progressives circa 1964, as though he’d been bumped forward in time from 1925, his sound might approximate Hubbard’s at this session.
“The Egg” has that weird whimsy of classic, pure-form New Orleans jazz, the kind that we only hear on record with the surviving sides of someone like Louisiana native Sam Morgan (1887-1936). You go through a looking glass into music like this, which still feels rusticated, fluted with lived-in grooves, but future-ish, sci-fi touched; these isles might as well be the archipelagos of Atlantis, that civilization thriving once again, if it ever had been.
Wayne Shorter wanted in on the Freddie Hubbard action, which was logical, given their memorable Messengers work and that Freddie had helped out Hancock. On Christmas Eve, 1964, Hubbard welcomed in the Yule with the date for what became Shorter’s Speak No Evil.
Hancock is here, and Ron Carter, but instead of Tony Williams on drums, we get Elvin Jones, like a Trane-Miles hybrid band, but one possessed of demonstrative autonomy. I think a lot of that comes from Hubbard, who so easily could have languished in Miles mode, rather than doing his own unique brand of bit-champing.
“Dance Cadaverous,” with its keening Hubbard lines, is like Grieg having a go at spectral, dark night of the soul, jangling-skeleton jazz. Post-bop Halloween. I don’t have a problem calling this Shorter’s best record, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Hubbard is smack in his prime on it. Sometimes we all need a little goading, a nudge of “it will be okay, you can try this, and do it,” and that’s what Hubbard was for what turned out to be a number of central, canonical Blue Note dates of the early and mid-1960s.
So we come, then, to what I hold as his richest record as a leader, Hubbard’s Breaking Point!, cut in early May, 1964. This will look like a motely line-up: James Spaulding on alto sax and flute, Ronnie Matthews at the piano, Eddie Khan on bass, Joe Chambers on drums. Hubbard could have played with anyone, and there’s no doubt, given his fructifying collaborations, that anyone in a stable of luminaries would have rushed to participate in one of his sessions as a leader, but Hubbard picked this band for a reason. These might not have been the titanic names, but he had a sound he was going for, and we behold the signage of that singular sonic imprimatur with the opening title track.
Hubbard’s trumpet lines surge forward, expanding, radial, while the ensemble moves in retrograde, back against the pull of his beat with phraseology that wouldn’t be out of place on Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity. The Kinks’ Dave Davies took a knife to his amplifier cone in this same year of 1964 to produce the distortion of “You Really Got Me”; this is Hubbard applying his trumpet, a different blade, to Dixieland jazz, the music ostensibly moving in two different directions at once, as Hubbard often did, while fusing as a single force. It sounds both fully-formed and germinal, with numbers among the most thrilling cuts of the 1960s.
“D Minor Mint” stakes us to three bars of a rapidly advancing horn riff, after which the riff pulls back, leaving a kind of negative space; not quite a vacuum, but a region into which we feel energy must flow. Cue Freddie, who begins his solo as a hard bopper, before changing tack mid-way through, mimicking the tendencies of the initial riff by withdrawing in three-note measures. James Spaulding solos on alto, with Hubbard jumping into the gaps between his notes at the end. He’s one quick cat.
That Hubbard can think and execute his ideas even faster than he can play his notes is one of the marvels of modern jazz, and one we take too little notice of. Unleash your own energy into that gap of understanding, but don’t miss sight of how the downriver man races back upriver, both with the current and against it. You have to be fast for that, but not in the way we usually think with trumpet players. Call it the Freddie Hubbard way.•