The late Freddie Hubbard, whose brilliant technique and warm tone were occasionally obscured by unfortunate settings, is perhaps to blame for his own dimmed star. Recordings like this make his case all over again.
Punchy and full of solos that are both demonstrative and then incendiary, Pinnacle: Live and Unreleased was recorded in June and October of 1980 at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner with a backing group that included bassist Larry Klein (now Joni Mitchell’s producer) and pianist Billy Childs, among others. It’s a powerful reminder that, while Hubbard’s career was perhaps the victim of poor timing — straight-ahead jazz had fallen into popular disfavor by the time he came into his own in the 1960s, sending the trumpeter into less interesting crossover formats — he still possessed the ability to astonish.
Hubbard could, even in front of a pillowy orchestra in those old 1970s CTI recordings, stand out like a glinting piece of glass on the vast sandy beach of blandness. Give him an exciting environment like this one, with a smart, involved group of supporting musicians and a focused, appreciative audience, and Hubbard burns brightly once more.
They tear into “The Intrepid Fox,” from his terrific 1970 blowing session Red Clay, and the title track from his 1971 recording First Light, to get things going. “One of Another Kind” might just send you scurrying back to his often-overlooked work with V.S.O.P. in the 1970s alongside Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. “Happiness Is Now,” a mash-up of hard bop and hip hop-inspired beats from Hubbard’s then-current album Skagly, inspire a series of languid then frenetic trumpet lines that recall their old boss, Miles Davis. Both Michel Legrand’s ballad “The Summer Knows” and “Blues for Duane” (inspired by his son) give Hubbard a chance to show off his command of a chocolaty rich tone.
Yet it doesn’t appear that this Resonance Records release will include anything approaching his seminal early 1960s Blue Note sides. (Open Sesame, Here to Stay and Breaking Point, all issued between 1960-64, are required listening). That is, until Hubbard begins a tremendous version of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”
A wonder of tempo and progression, this composition has never been for the timid. At the same time, though, “Giant Steps” was shot through with this unfettered joy. Too many, over the years, have simply used this song as vehicle for virtuosity, forgetting the breakthrough it once was for Coltrane — who always played with a remorseless fury, but began moving into deeper emotional waters with the original 1959 recording. Hubbard makes no such mistakes, playing with dexterous assertiveness, but also unabashed delight, over eight choruses and four and a half minutes. Saxophonist Hadley Caliman, who passed a couple of years after Hubbard in September 2010, matches the trumpeter’s scorching pace stride for stride, too.
In this way, the glowingly performed “Giant Steps” moves well beyond the expected for unreleased tracks in this age of repackaging. It isn’t simply another dusty find, designed perhaps to appeal only to the completist. Instead, “Giant Steps” is worth the entrance fee itself. This is a stirring valedictory for Hubbard, a new opportunity at long last to get lost in his personality, warmth and desirous technique — to fall in love with Freddie Hubbard all over again.
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