By: David MacFadden-Elliott
Freddie Hubbard :: 04.04.08 [late show] :: Yoshi's SF :: San Francisco, CA
It was evident early on that something was wrong. After a weak, wobbly solo on opener "Jodo," Freddie Hubbard scoffed and pretended to disdainfully throw his flugelhorn into the audience, which he nearly did. While earlier records demonstrated a technique of pitch-bending that communicates a vulnerability in his music, Hubbard was nearer to peril on this occasion. He spent most of his time onstage talking: talking to the crowd, talking through his band members' solos. Sometimes he would dance to the work of his sidemen, but, in deep concentration, they appeared annoyed by his buffoonery. Sometimes Hubbard listened for a moment but his attention span was short and there was skulking to be done. Later in the show, his brief, requisite solo complete, he went so far as to fetch a greeting card that a fan had given him and peel it open center-stage during James Spaulding's alto sax solo.
These words don't flow easily. It's hard to watch a jazz legend saunter around a sparkling new club with beautiful acoustics as if it were some third-rate dive or his hundredth wedding reception gig. This guy has a catalog that stretches back to 1960 when he was recording on Blue Note Records. His string of albums for CTI in the early '70s is among the finest jazz-fusion ever put out. There's a lot to be proud of, but on this night, celebrating his 70th birthday (which fell on April 7), he seemed nothing but bitter, muttering that he hadn't done anything except surgery in five years.
It's a notorious and grisly story. In the early '90s, Hubbard literally busted his chops when an unhealed blister in his upper lip popped and became infected when he refused to cancel gigs. So, a little leeway in terms of technical stamina is granted but to deem this ship seaworthy was a mistake. He made a great show of what pain he was in, constantly chomping at the bit, licking his lips and expressing rage toward his instrument's valves with exaggerated frustration. Unhappy with the action on his flugelhorn, he briefly tested the valves on a trumpet that had been stashed inside the open top of George Cables' grand piano, but never played it.
If you want a glimpse of legends that can still play with class and finesse, you can look to Hubbard's longtime cohorts. In addition to the aforementioned Spaulding and Cables, drummer Lenny White and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson came out to support Hubbard. Cables, White, and bassist Dwayne Burno performed "Ebony Moon" as a trio, and it was a pleasure to watch Cables and White silently communicate, as Cables called, with four fingers, for a four-beat lead-in after each turn-around of the 5/4 song; a pleasure despite the woman in the front row unapologetically calling a friend on her cell phone. Hutcherson, who received second billing to Hubbard, owned the show, a noble presence and a determined performer. After his vibraphone solos he would sit back and stare at the instrument, breathing deeply. He looked exhausted but nailed it every time. Among the younger cats on stage, Craig Handy damn near stole the show with his tenor sax.
After a lot of rambling gibberish that touched on a ménage a trois and San Franciscans forgetting about jazz, Hubbard ended the show. A woman requested "Up Jumped Spring," to which Hubbard scowled, "Nah, I can't play nothing. These guys gotta go to sleep," and promptly disappeared through the curtain at the back of the stage. White - who was nursing his right hand after an excellent solo that paid precise attention to hi-hat and kick drum on what turned out to be the show's climax - and the other band members followed one-by-one, exchanging dumbfounded glances. Spaulding hurried to the front of the stage to retrieve a flute he had only just brought from backstage but had yet to play, and with a confused glimmer and a nod he followed. Even Yoshi's announcer struggled, delaying for a minute or two before saying something to the effect of, "Uh, there ya go, Freddie Hubbard, ladies and gentlemen."
Hopefully Hubbard was just drunk, which would be a logical and rectifiable, though not excusable, reason for his chops and, more importantly, his lousy demeanor. Hubbard still knows the impact that his music can have, however, the best interpretation he mustered was not with his horn. Late in "Red Clay," after the song was brought full-circle with the legendary bassline (handled beautifully on stand-up by Burno), Hubbard strutted, hard, with the gangster-lean imbedded in that song, rocking onto his toes with the staggered rhythms. He felt his legend even if he didn't portray it.
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