The New Jazz Composers Octet, a New York scene collective of young players/composers dedicated to the ideal of new composition in jazz, here reaffirms their commitment to "new" jazz composition with nothing less than- you guessed it: backing up a aging jazz icon in an album consisting entirely of that icon's tunes.
How the irony of this could escape even the casual observer is beyond this reviewer. The New Jazz Composers collective, if one has checked out their web site, forswears to a mantra of creating original music. Perhaps it is they who are being ironic, or maybe this reviewer takes them too seriously in living out their ideal; in any event it is at least rather odd that the members of the Octet chose to do a record with Freddie Hubbard and play only his tunes.
Alas, people will say that there may not be new compositions on this album, but there are most certainly- New Colors. The line goes like this: The New Jazz Composers acquit themselves of any charges of fraud or pretense by their fundamentally "new" arrangements of these standby tunes like Red Clay and Blues for Miles. Fair enough, assuming however- assuming, that the arrangements transcended the tunes enough to make them seem truly, fundamentally, new, such as the "New Directions Band" (Greg Osby and co.) managed to do to a good extent on their album of Blue Note covers. Judging by the title this was undoubtedly their promise, but did they deliver?
The New Jazz Composers arrangements of classic Freddie Hubbard tunes do not transcend these tunes by any great measure. Furthermore, it is unfortunate that what "new colors" there are on these tunes is often less for the better. For starters, the opening track, the modal burner "One of Another Kind" is tamed to such an extent by a brass-heavy arrangement and a modest swing that it ends up having little vitality. We needn't even compare this rendition to the vigorous original (on a McCoy Tyner record) to realize how brazenly unmoving it sounds here. The blurred studio mix (that is a constant through the album) with way too much cymbals, doesn't help in the least bit.
"Red Clay", another of Freddie Hubbard's wooly chestnuts, is another fine case in point, or victim if you will. Lest one be under the impression that Red Clay is THE veritable anthem of jazz-funk, we are treated to a West-Coastish rendition here that lumbers along in a very unfon-kay way. Freddie's opening solo (on fluegelhorn, as throughout) sounds as if he is altogether disinterested; his solo, no insult intended, actually sounds like a broken record. And despite the best efforts of Craig Handy and Xavier Davis in their solos, the track ends up sounding frankly like a cut from Jamey Aebersold play-along cd= flat and swinging in only the most stilted way.
That said, attributed to the blandness of "Red Clay" and other tracks is that the rhythm section is not at all responsive, and the horn section is similarly at fault (their refrains typically sound like they are on a 2-second time delay.) The collaboration of these two lacking performances means this band as a whole reeks of a studio auto-pilot aura from almost start-to- finish on this record.
Aside from the negatives, which admittedly are quite abundant here, "Blue Spirits" is one of the few genuinely worthwhile tracks on this record. Craig Handy's solo on soprano is incisive and Freddie Hubbard turns out his most thoughtful solo on the album as well. The Octet undergirds the soloists with responsive brass chorus' and here the band sounds most like one full unit, instead of Freddie +8 or the rhythm section being aloof. "True Colors" is also a pretty good one; the band actually swings a bit here and lets down its uptight studio hair. Craig Handy has a strong solo and Myron Walden follows suit. It is a tidy affair however, at only over 5 minutes. "Inner Space" is noted for its decent intensity. "Dizzy's Connotations" however is only fair and it is probably the most telling track of this record. It has an overwhelming vibe of modest ambition and indifference, with the results being suitably modest and indifferent. That is the par of this record; a modest studio outing it is.
Finally, there is the issue of (nominal) leader Freddie Hubbard himself. That is in fact an issue on this record, because there is no doubt that many people are going to buy this record on the basis of his name alone.
Please take care to realize that Freddie Hubbard is a NOMINAL leader in every sense of the word on this record. His name may be out front-and-center on the record cover but it is only obvious he is never out front-and-center as a musician here. His solos are brief and too often wavering, and he does not lead the band in playing the melodies in a very assertive way. For those expecting some kind of return to form by Freddie Hubbard here, you will be sorely disappointed, not only because he plays fluegelhorn straight through but because he doesn't even sound remotely convincing on the easier-played horn. The fact of the matter is, Freddie's chops are way down and this record, pity him or not, is he as a shadow of his former self. If you want to hear Freddie Hubbard like Freddie Hubbard can play, and of recent years- check out the live album reissued on Metropolitan a year ago. THAT was a return to form. This in contrast suggests a slippery slope for the future in his playing.
Finally, this is by no means a completely dismal record; there ARE moments here and there, and even a few tracks that hold interest all the way through. But it would not at all be an understatement to say that this is an exceptionally pedestrian, ho-hum blase record, and it is most certainly a contender for the top-ten blandest studio jazz records of 2001.
Why the New Jazz Composers Octet latched onto Freddie Hubbard to create not only a record comprised purely of Freddie's tunes, but a mediocre one at best, is confounding. These are supposedly "go get ‘em" cats who are very idealistic about the musical careers which lay before them, and yet here they play a very slim second fiddle to the big name of a fading Freddie Hubbard. For what? Affection or honoring Freddie? Perhaps, but if they also bet that Freddie's name can help them get exposure, they are right in theory but wrong so long as they don't realize the record has to stand on it's own merits. Maybe they will think harder about going against their own better wisdom (New Jazz Composition) next time.