Creed Taylor's genre-bending CTI Records held the precarious position as the dominant jazz label during the 1970sthe decade during which the music "died. CTI was a contradiction in itself; it had as much to do with the promotion of straight-ahead, hard-swinging jazz as with spawning smoothed-out, easy-listening records that bordered on muzak. For every album as classy as Jim Hall's Concierto
(CTI, 1975) there is a dud like Bob James's BJ4
(CTI, 1977), which comes perilously close to disco. The discontinuity can even occur on the same album; what begins as a rewarding listening experience is often suffocated by one of Don Sebesky's infamous overly lush string arrangements.
Regardless, Taylor signed some of the biggest names in jazz, many of whom had come over from then-floundering Blue Note. Throughout the 1970s, Taylor arguably had no bigger star than the gifted and boisterous trumpeter, Freddie Hubbard. While Red Clay (CTI, 1970) and First Light (CTI, 1971) are generally regarded as classics, Hubbard's true gem from the 1970s is Straight Life (CTI, 1970).
Straight Life is a stud in the CTI catalog and is unquestionably one of the best fusion recordings of all-time. Hubbard's concept is clearlet loose and jam, and ask questions later. The groupfeaturing Joe Henderson, George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, and Richie Landrumdoes just that, crafting two mammoth jams that borrow heavily from Latin and rock and clock in at well over the ten minute mark. Though tracks at this length may frighten off some impatient listeners, those with open ears will find it impossible to lose interest in these grooves. There is no aimless noodling, as both tracks contain one awe-inspiring, virtuosic solo after another.
The title track opens with Hubbard calling his compatriots to arms with a bold, unaccompanied declaration that puts his infallible technique on blatant (and somewhat narcissistic) display. Hubbard means business and his group is up to the task. It features a lively and intensely rhythmic Latin groove that remains light on its feet despite complicated layers of interlocking cross-rhythms. DeJohnette's playing is astounding and volcanic with ambiguous time and an obscured beat, yet he generates relentless momentum that the soloists feed off explosively.
On "Mr. Clean the group reaches deep into the soul/funk bag, pulling out a bottom-heavy, fat-beat groove that trudges along slowly yet forcefully. Hubbard jumps right in, spitting out blues licks with his characteristic swagger, followed by a meaty Henderson tenor workout. Hancock's solo builds through some interesting two-handed counterpoint, climaxing with the rhythm section locking into a spooky eight-bar polymetric passage that will undoubtedly spin some heads.
Hubbard's animated, cocky style rarely lends itself to emotionally convincing ballad playing, and his take with Benson and Carter on "Here's That Rainy Day continues this unfortunate trend. However, after the power and brilliance of the first two tracks, the sterility of the ballad detracts very little from Straight Life's value as a 1970s classic.