Listening to Freddie Hubbard

Even with centuries of innovation in brass instrument making, the trumpet is still basically a metal tube through which one is expected to blow, vibrating the lips against the opening at one end. It doesn’t matter who’s making the horn. That’s basically all it is.

The notes come out following the harmonic series: beginning with a low fundamental tone and ascending, according to the laws of physics, by ever smaller intervals until the top of the range, where the series ends in pure, densely packed chromatics. Add three valves and you’ve got seven harmonic series available: 0, 1, 2, 12, 23, 13, and 123.* In the low range all the fundamental notes have their own fingering. In the high range, where the seven series converge, almost any note can be played with any fingering.

In addition, there is the quality of the attack, the flow of air, and the flexibility in moving from one note to another. All musical expressiveness on the trumpet stems from control of these few variables.

Freddie Hubbard was one of the most skilled practitioners of this art. The joy and freedom in his playing came in part from this complete mastery of the instrument. It always sounded effortless. In the high range his control of air was so sublime that his lines sometimes defied the laws of physics and harmony, resolving in odd ways just by dint of his total domination of the instrument. Freddie grabbed the opportunity of those alternate fingerings to pop in and out of chromatic chord and scale ideas. His attack was always precise and his dodging and darting lines flowed like water through a sluiceway.

A lot of people can play the trumpet well. Technical mastery is far from the reason Freddie Hubbard is the most imitated player of the last half-century. It was what he did with that mastery — the inventiveness of his harmonies and the ingenuity of his rhythmic propulsion. Freddie’s impact is so profound that you often don’t have to mention him when noting a young player’s influences. Freddie is always there. He had a lot to say, and we all soaked it up.

As a young player Freddie listened to Clifford Brown for sure. He also drank deeply at the well of Clifford’s inspirations: Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, and Louis Armstrong, among many others. But trumpeters aren’t the only influence for trumpeters. In the same way that Clifford Brown talked about putting Charlie Parker’s language on the trumpet, Freddie Hubbard brought the practices of John Coltrane, his occasional practice-mate, directly into the brass world.

Freddie’s lines drove the harmony. Freddie toyed with the music, anticipating and delaying resolutions in unexpected ways. But at the end of the day it was the maturity of his improvisations that were the most powerful aspect of his musical expression. Freddie at his best could go nuts with the lines and the harmony, but he would also ease off and play with bluesy simplicity when it more effectively served the moment.

The VSOP records of the mid-seventies show Freddie in an unusual and revealing light. This had been Miles Davis’ band in the mid-sixties: Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. With Miles this music was spare and enigmatic — no extra notes and no bravura energy added to the brilliance of the tunes. Freddie brings something quite different. He is generous with notes and all flowing grace. A different kind of grace, like a gregarious toastmaster. Freddie is so on top of the music and the horn that he is unable to restrain the joyful exuberance of his ideas and his ability to pull them off.

That explains a lot about why he is more imitated than Miles Davis — his style gave so much more material to hold onto. Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard were two very different visions of the modern esthetic. Echoes of Miles are heard a lot, but you hear the sound of Freddie everywhere.

Trumpeters have often been tragic figures in American life. Freddie Hubbard was no different. The last fifteen years of his life saw him battling a disastrous lip injury that limited his ability to execute his ideas. Freddie also battled the forces of fashion – by his own admission (though not necessarily that of his fans) he spent some years making music that did not live up to his high standards. By the early seventies he had done pretty much everything that could be done: documented many masterpiece solos, participated in dozens of seminal recordings, elaborated a personal vision for the instrument and the music that still stands up today. Where was he to go? That kind of legacy and pressure at such a young age is hard to imagine.

We can be thankful for the joy Freddie Hubbard brought to us in his seventy years on the planet. He will be missed.


* For those curious why 3 is not included among the seven basic fingerings — 3 creates a length of tubing almost exactly identical to 12, with 12 being slightly more in tune. 3 is a widely used alternate fingering, but is not considered among the basic positions.

Darcy at Secret Society has a great collection of links to other thoughts about Freddie Hubbard, as well as some perceptive thoughts of his own.