Freddie sadly passed away earlier this month after a heart attack in November. Better writers than myself have described what a loss this is to jazz. Personally speaking, Freddie was probably the earliest influence on me after Miles. I can remember getting Hub Tones, getting home and sticking it on the CD player and being blown away within about two bars of ‘Your My Everything’. There are other players I listen to more these days, but for communicating the sheer joy of improvisation through his sound, he has to be the greatest for me. (Possibly after Louis Armstrong – most people are)
The thing that consistently gets me about Freddie’s playing is, compared to other trumpet players, his totally unique time feel . He has this amazing ability to play time really loosely, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind the beat, something I more often hear in saxophone players – Coltrane, Cannonball, Wayne Shorter in his own way and Lovano all really do this. Most trumpet players play much straighter time. Miles plays off the subdivision, dividing the beat like a diamond cutter, Clifford Brown kind of spits the time out, and Wynton seems to play along way above it. None of them sound like Freddie.
Freddie is usually grouped with Lee Morgan and Booker Little as one of the three main Hard Bop trumpet players (you might also include Donald Byrd, Blue Mitchell and Kenny Dorham), although I’ve never liked this categorisation as I think their disimilarities are more interesting than their similarities. I’ve never liked Morgan much so I won’t talk about him but Booker and Freddie (who are often paired together as rivals competing for the same musical territory) suggest completely different directions to me. Booker seems to me to a far more intellectually rigorous and abstract player, with a much more severe classical sound and time feel. Even when he’s playing comparatively straight ahead material, he seems to suggest much freer music. I think his real affinities are with Dolphy, Ornette, elements of Wayne Shorter and even things like the early seventies Braxton/Kenny Wheeler stuff, far more than with the hard-bop tradition.
Freddie on the other hand is far more steeped in soul and funky blues. I hear this as his dominant characteristic even when he’s playing on Out To Lunch or Free Jazz. However out he gets in terms of his harmony or ideas, his feel keeps suggesting more straight ahead music, making him an interesting foil to Dolphy and Ornette’s more abstract playing on those albums. (He’s a personification of how open-minded jazz was in the early sixties, particularly Blue Note Records - is there a label around today that has the equivalent of Cecil Taylor, Ornette, Andrew Hill and Dolphy as well as Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan and Cannonball Adderley on their books?). If Booker is freer than his language might suggest, then Freddie is always showing us the connection between free jazz and the mainstream.
As with Booker, I think the main affinity within Freddie’s playing is not with his hard-bop trumpet colleagues (although this is clearly there) but actually with Coltrane. This isn’t news in terms of harmony – Freddie was quite open about that himself (and quite open about what it did to his chops!) but, to return to the time feel, Freddie’s ability to be so loose and yet swing so hard comes from Coltrane. Compare Coltrane playing the head of ‘But Not For Me’:
With Freddie playing ‘The Night has a Thousand Eyes:
It’s interesting that this characteristic becomes more accentuated in Freddie’s playing in the seventies when he increasingly played flugelhorn as much as trumpet. The wider bore and weaker resistance of the flugel makes this kind of funky, soulful playing easier. Check out this performance of ‘Moment to Moment’ from Freddie’s 1971 album First Light:
There is now a whole school of trumpet/flugel playing comprising people like Gerard Presencer, Roy Hargrove and some Till Breuner that is a kind of half way point between funk/groove music and hard-bop. It’s clear upon listening to these guys that Freddie is the dominant influence (much more than Randy Brecker or Woody Shaw, the other two contenders). I strongly suspect that Freddie’s unique funky time feel was what inspired these guys to play like this and so, in effect, create a whole new school of jazz trumpet playing.