On the Wednesday Night Beat, Doug Crane will present Freddie Hubbard’s CTI recording “First Light” which was released 50 years ago in the fall of 1971.
Featuring stellar solos from Hubert Laws and George Benson and awash in subtle string and alto flute arrangements by Don Sebesky, Freddie never sounded better.
Recorded in September 1971 and released a month later, Freddie Hubbard’s “First Light” was his third as part of a four-album contract with Creed Taylor’s CTI label. It marked a significant shift from the two prior albums “Red Clay” and “Straight Life” which were more straight-ahead blowing sessions.
Arranger Don Sebesky’s orchestral underpinnings serve to enhance rather than overwhelm with instrumentation limited to strings, alto flutes, other woodwinds, and vibes. His work on “First Light” was rewarded with a nomination for Best Instrumental Arrangement Grammy for his scoring of Leonard Bernstein’s “Lonely Town”.
Other Grammy nods for “First Light” included a win for Best Jazz Performance by a Group and a Best Jazz Performance by a Soloist nomination for Freddie.
Paul McCartney’s song “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” was sitting at the top of the pop charts at the time “First Light” was recorded. Employing a somewhat more ethereal opening and closing of the tune (Uncle Albert) than Paul McCartney, Freddie turns up the “funk” factor in the middle section (Admiral Halsey), a far cry from how McCartney presents it as a quasi-English show tune. And as throughout the rest of the recording, it features strong solos from Mr. Hubbard and guitarist George Benson plus a brief solo by flautist Hubert Laws.
One of the songs recorded at the session but not included on the original album became the title tune for a collection of leftovers from Freddie’s tenure at CTI. Penned by pianist Cedar Walton and called “Polar AC” on the latter album, its actual name is “Fantasy in D”. But the song’s lineage goes back about another decade to a time when Cedar and Freddie were part of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. “Ugetsu”, also composed by Cedar Walton, was a mainstay of the Blakey band in the early 1960s. “Fantasy in D” is the very same song but dramatically slowed down from a bop burner to a slow funky groove.
The title tune “First Light” starts off with Freddie vamping for about 90 seconds before launching into the tune which, in its melody and open solo sections, shifts between A-flat minor 7 and B-flat minor 7 chords. Freddie regales the listener with seemingly effortless soloing and technical prowess which was unmatched at the time of this recording. At around the 3:20 mark, we hear Freddie’s trademark alternate fingering lick (he plays the same note when doing this) which is far more difficult to do than he makes it sound. The track features a very nice solo from George Benson.
Also included on “First Light” is Henry Mancini’s “Moment to Moment.” For an interesting comparison, contrast Freddie’s version to Roy Hargrove’s 1999 recording of the same song on Roy’s 1999 album “With Strings.”
In retrospect, Freddie Hubbard’s early 1970 recordings were some of the very best of his career. His first three recordings for CTI, while different, are just as strong as many of the albums he recorded for Blue Note in the 1960s. And in the case of “First Light’, he’s able to bask in the backgrounds provided by his fellow musicians and the arrangements of Don Sebesky, all captured by engineer Rudy Van Gelder at his studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey during September of 1971.
Tune in to The Night Beat on Wednesday, December 15, at 8 pm for classic Freddie Hubbard. Only on KUVO JAZZ!
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