Miles Davis told Freddie Hubbard one late September night in 1981 that Hubbard was “the baddest motherfucker on the planet right now.” According to Barkan’s testimony in the liner notes for this archival live release of Hubbard performances at Keystone Korner, the pair was in the office of Todd Barkan, the owner and manager of the now defunct San Francisco jazz club. There was no greater authority on musical swagger than Davis, and considering his insatiable competitiveness and legendary ego, conceding that kind of title, to a fellow trumpeter no less, is quite a statement. And after hearing Pinnacle: Live & Unreleased from Keystone Korner, with Hubbard blaring with such ecstatic soulfulness, and backed by a band that seems to always lock into a telepathic funk groove, I’m not going to argue with Davis. This brew is delicious.
Even after these tapes have spent 30 years confined to archived canisters undoubtedly in some musty back room, the performances on Pinnacle leap out as examples of great, confident jazz standing tall in the midst of a community-wide identity crisis: the musicianship is bold, the playing is ecstatic, and the life that Hubbard blows out of his trumpet points to the timelessness of the art form he helped to sustain through some of jazz’s most chaotic years at the turn of the 1970s. While Davis was causing controversy with his groundbreaking “new directions” into electric music, Hubbard found his signature sound by injecting hard bop with a potent and swinging hybrid of soul and funk on his output for the CTI label.
It’s this period that Hubbard rightfully highlights on Pinnacle. Opener “The Intrepid Fox” is culled from Hubbard’s watershed 1970 release Red Clay and sets the pace for the entirety of Pinnacle‘s jubilant hour-plus running time. At the outset, there’s a strident kick in from Sinclair Lott’s drum set, followed by a quick descending melodic theme harmonized between Hubbard and David Schnitter’s tenor saxophone, and finally a brilliant trumpet call from Hubbard that reverberates through the eardrum and down the backbone like a clarion alarm to the whole jazz community: to relax, to have fun playing music again, and to play what comes naturally. For Hubbard, it’s his quintessential mixture of Sly Stone-influenced funk shaking hands with jazz.
From that first exhilarating moment onward, there’s no tension hiding beneath the surface of this breezy, effortlessly fun record. While Davis was fighting to push listeners into a radical sonic frontier with his Bitches Brew-era compositions, Hubbard’s compositions from that time period were warm, welcoming, and melodically rich. The emphasis here is not on structural or conceptual audacity, but rather on the bridge between melody and improvisation that holds its foundations on musicianship and hearty doses of soul, most especially on “First Light,” the centerpiece of an album full of stellar moments. When Hubbard and his quintet dive headfirst into the theme of that song, one of six Hubbard originals on the collection, the small but enthusiastic crowd erupts into an audible fit of glee. Larry Klein’s elastic bass is the glue of the song, and his presence is the most pivotal piece of the quintet’s success outside of Hubbard himself. From musician to audience member, the intimate and playfully candid atmosphere resonating through this collection proves that there’s not a single individual on these recordings that doesn’t feed off the groove.
It’s a groove that’s impossible to replicate—unique to the brain and heart of Freddie Hubbard. When Pinnacle closes with a burning rendition of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” the only known recording of Hubbard performing the song, it fittingly points back to the building blocks of the modern jazz vocabulary, as well as directing it toward a future of genre crosspollination and stylistic reinvention. It’s all quintessential Hubbard, and it shouldn’t have been locked away for so long.