“Poisson d’Avril” put to bed, LJC navigates the turn of the ’60s/’70s decade, where modern jazz slides into electric jazz-rock fusion, with flagship of the genre, Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay. A transition not only in musical style, but demands on sound engineers. Warning: contains mixed opinions, make yours known.
Selection: Red Clay
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Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Joe Henderson, tenor sax & flute; Herbie Hancock, Fender Rhodes electric piano & Hammond organ; Ron Carter, electric & acoustic bass; Lenny White, drums. Recorded Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, January 27, 28 & 29, 1970. Cover photo by Price Givens, album design by Tony Lane, produced by Creed Taylor.
For Joe Henderson, Red Clay seems business as usual, not Eddie Harris electric sax, but miked tenor sax, marble hard tone and inside/outside voicings, helter-skelter figures. Hancock is still rehearsing his Head Hunters phase, purple shell suit on order, the Fender Rhodes electric piano warbling anaemically, for me lacking the rapid-fire conversation between real piano and like-minded acoustic instruments. Carter was said not to be enthusiastic about the Fender electric bass, opting sometimes for an upright electro-acoustic bass fitted with a pick-up. Lennie White is a new fusion kid on the block, no historical baggage. Hubbard however is Hubbard – warm rich full tone, effortless control and perfectly executed ideas.
Off the back of ten sizzling Blue Notes in the first half of the ’60s, Freddie signalled his trajectory away from bop in 1966, importing soul, funk and rock elements aimed at a broader audience (read: bigger audience) , and embracing a walk-on cast of new electronic instruments.
At the outset were titles for Atlantic, notably Backlash and High Pressure Blues, arriving at CTI in 1970 with six albums between 1970-4, starting with the flagship title of the genre, Red Clay, through to Polar – AC.
Consisting largely of blues-based modal tracks at heart, Red Clay offers theatrical openings, memorable heads and choruses and plenty of space for hot soloing from a star cast willing to ride the new electric train. In a 1978 interview for Down Beat, Hubbard spoke about the origin of the title track, “Red Clay.” (cited in a 1978 doctoral paper at California U., Long Beach)
According to Freddie,” ‘Red Clay’ was about a woman who lived beneath us in Indianapolis and her old man. In Indianapolis we lived across the street from the oil company where Wes Montgomery used to have a day job. It’s a weird neighborhood, hardcore, a silhouette. But it was good, because I could always hear those guys playing guitar on their back porches.
Anyway, this guy and his women were outside, fighting. At the same time I heard this guy playing stuff on his guitar, like Brownie McGhee. Then the man put his woman in the garbage can and put the lid on it. After that, and hearing those blues, I came up with the bass line…”
It was not, as I assumed, about terracotta pottery classes. The tune was laid over the chord changes of the 1966 hit “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb, written about his murdered older brother Sonny, a song covered by so many artists that it ranked number 25 in BMI’s Top 100 Songs of the Century, though I didn’t make the connection myself. Later in life, Freddie declared “Red Clay” was ‘the tune that’s been keeping me alive for the last 30 years’ and always credited it as “Sunny”.
If Carter and Henderson were old hands, the young drummer Lenny White was just turning twenty when Freddie called him for the Red Clay date. Lenny’s fusion star had been on the rise since his place on Miles Davis Bitches Brew session but he revealed in an interview later, Freddie’s first call had been to old hand Anthony Williams, an invitation redirected to Lenny by Williams, who was concerned about Miles’ anticipated reaction: lending his best drummer to another trumpet-player maybe not a good idea. If you follow the story, Ron Carter advised White to change his bass drum to a more studio-friendly piece of kit, something White always regretted, you be the judge.
Vinyl: CT 6001 STEREO VAN GELDER
Requiring three full days of studio time at Englewood Cliffs, I speculate the whole album was not an effortless production. For over a decade Van Gelder had been the architect of The Blue Note Sound, capturing moving air, wringing every nuance out of acoustic instruments with close-miking and letting the dials run hot. If musicians were, of commercial necessity, moving their playing onto electronic instruments, you wonder what impact this had on Van Gelder’s vision for sound engineering ? Put away the marvellous Neumann U47s, plug the Fender Rhodes and bass straight into the mixer, go make a cup of coffee?
Until now the VAN GELDER stamp assured the optimum quality of what you are about to hear. In these CTI electric albums I hear a move away from the intimacy of acoustic analogue recording. Perhaps it was inevitable that with an electric ensemble and multitrack recordings, some of Van Gelder’s distinctive recording methods fell by the wayside, and there would be a convergence, in which Van Gelder’s output would begin to sound much the same as any other top flight studio, all with the same electronic instrument sources, plugged into the mixer.
The engineering balance and mixing is still top flight, half the line up is nominally still acoustic, but for me, the CTI Sound has lost some of the Blue Note Van Gelder magic. The rise of electric fusion did not just shift musical direction, it led in some ways to the demise of “musicians in the room” the experience. And with the arrival of Don Sebesky orchestral arrangements on some of Hubbard’s subsequent CTI titles, suddenly you’ve got twenty four musicians in the room. The floor just can’t take it!
Wonderful picture of Freddie on the back of the gatefold, I can hear that note. That looks like what Red Clay sounds like: trumpet-smokin’ goodness, no Health Warning required.
There is a big story attached to the acquisition of a suite of Hubbard CTI albums, but before I launch into it, I’d like to check out the interest among readers in ’70s electric jazz-rock fusion genre, or whatever you want to call it.
I know it’s controversial in some quarters, like among purist Blue Note be-boppers, and I’m not one for almost anything ’80s or beyond, so you definitely need to go elsewhere for jiggy grime-infused hip-hop breakbeats, but I think the ’70s crossover movement still has some historic interest, before it turned into the mush that is “smooth jazz.” (Have I missed offending anyone?)
Please give electric jazz fusion – of the variety posted here today, and I include Miles electric phase and perhaps Weather Report, you get the drift, taken as a whole – a simple five point spread “Like” score. Poll open for one week, one vote only, no ID required, citizens of Saturn especially welcome, you can vote simply by producing a outer space driving license…
Check back often to find out if you are in or out with the In-Crowd.
I have mixed feelings about this period, but I decided some time ago that LJC would be a broad church, the big picture, and all opinions are welcome. . Any thoughts in particular about Freddie’s CTI period, your opportunity to share them here, good, bad or indifferent, I’m sure you have something to say, comment is free.
True Confessions: I arrived at acoustic backwards from electric origins. I have boxes of 80s fusion in the loft. GRP, Lee Ritenour, David Sanborn, Jazz Crusaders, Joe Sample, Brecker Brothers, Dave Grusin, Bob James, Yellow Jackets, Spyrogyra, I could go on, and on, and on… I wait to see if it comes back into fashion. So far, no sign. Hold or Fold?