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The Two Audiences of Freddie Hubbard

January 27, 1988|ZAN STEWART

Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard is hard to figure out.

Amid such first-rate straight-ahead records as "Red Clay" (CTI) and the recent "Double Take" (Blue Note), Hubbard waxes mediocre jazz/fusion/funk dates, such as the A side of his current "Lifeflight" (Blue Note) LP--dates he often later says he regrets. It's a topsy-turvy process that poses questions as to Hubbard's sincerity as a mainstream craftsman, puts dents in the armor of his credibility as a jazz master and makes listeners wonder what he'll offer in a live performance.

"I know this back-and-forth thing has thrown a lot of people off, and they're saying, 'Well, what is he going to do this time?,' " Hubbard acknowledged recently. "But the people who sincerely like to hear me play, I don't think it bothers them."

Talk to Hubbard for a while and it becomes clear that the trumpeter both enjoys his dual nature, and sees it as a necessity for economic survival. "I've found I've had to mix it up since I left Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1964," Hubbard said.

"If you play the same style for years and years, it gets boring," the trumpeter, who plays Vine St. Bar & Grill tonight through Sunday, continued, "so you try to trip out and do something different. Besides, you've got to make a living. It's hard to survive playing just straight-ahead. Sometimes I want to do a little of everything, from working with radio orchestras in Europe to making commercials and funk records. I like to do different things, not only for the money but partly because I know I can do it."

Hubbard sowed the seeds for his current status as a stylistic vacillator when he began recording for Creed Taylor's CTI label in 1970. This period produced such LPs as "Red Clay," which featured Hubbard leading a powerhouse mainstream quintet sparked by pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Joe Henderson, and "First Light," where the brassman's pop leanings were showcased over silky string backings by Don Sebesky.

The 49-year-old Hubbard sees the latter LP as a turning point in his career. "With 'First Light,' I really started establishing myself as a leader," he said. "That record opened up a lot of doors for me, and people kind of heard of Freddie Hubbard."

Since then, like it or not, he's had two audiences: one that embraces his jazz/fusion side, another that favors his heated, be-bop oriented improvisations.

"It's a strange thing," he said. "One place they want funkier things, like 'Superblue' or 'Liquid Love,' another place they'll ask for more complicated pieces like 'Intrepid Fox,' which really pleases me because that's something I've spent a lot of time on. But, for the last couple of years, I've been basically playing straight-ahead and not worrying so much about who I please."

He's worked both with his quintets--he has East Coast and West Coast bands--and with various all-star aggregations, including a three-week European "Tribute to John Coltrane" tour with pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, bassist Reggie Workman and saxman Sonny Fortune.

"That felt really great because I had a chance to really stretch out and play creatively," he said. "We're taking the same band to Japan, in late May-early June, and then we'll try to make a record. I'm also doing a few gigs with McCoy. We enjoy each other, so we make some good free music. We've known each other since we lived around the corner from each other in Brooklyn in 1960."

The Indianapolis-born Hubbard arrived in New York in 1958, and within three years had worked with trombonist J. J. Johnson, saxophonist Sonny Rollins and drummer Blakey. He also quickly began his recording career, making several excellent LPs for Blue Note. It's a time he remembers with fondness.

The trumpeter says that his quintet of the last three years--John Beasley, piano; Bob Shepard, reeds; John B. Williams, bass, and Ralph Penland, drums--is "pretty good." "These guys know something about my style and my energy, and we sound good together. Good enough that I may take them out for all my road engagements."

Despite his forays into commercial camps, if Hubbard is pressed to choose between funk or mainstream, he invariably selects the artistically purer stance. "I'm a jazz messenger," he said, referring to his tenure with Blakey. "I'm supposed to keep this music alive. I've gone off a few times, but now it's keep the musicality up, keep it so guys can't sham when they play with me. That's what I got from Blakey: you've got to stay up on your horn, you've got to keep playing the music. Besides, it's what I do best."

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