I thought I had hung up my keyboard for the year (not that I was writing very much in 2008 anyways, increasing my output is one of my resolutions for ‘09), but upon the passing of a brass giant I must comment.
For any jazz fan or trumpet player, Freddie is a one-namer, like Pops, Miles, Dizzy. (I’d add Rex and Lester to that list, but I’d have to admit that’s more about my own cultivated taste. Freddie is a one-namer for just about everyone.) With his well-publicized chops problems tarnishing his luster over the past decade, and his forays into pop and fusion diminishing his reputation amongst jazz purists and dedicated experimentalists alike, it’s easy to forget this. But in his prime he was one of the baddest dudes on the instrument, ever.
Do the Math has a great appreciation that lists some of Freddie’s 60s discographical highlights. Blakey’s Free for All and Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth are probably my two favorites, though I also have a soft spot for Rollins’ East Broadway Run Down, a very weird record. It’s funny to think that though he’s the quintessential hard bop trumpeter, he was a key participant on three of the most important documents of the 60s avant-garde: Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, John Coltrane’s Ascension, and Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. And though he might have sounded a little out of place in the ensemble “freedom” of Ornette or Trane, he absolutely tears it up in the angular world of Dolphy. Out to Lunch features some of the most otherworldly trumpet playing on record, a combination of virtuosic post-bop technique and new music risk taking that still sounds thrilling.
But I must admit, I’ve moved away from his music in the past decade; my own aesthetic path diverged as I became more interested in bending the sound rather than attacking it. I’ve been more likely to talk about him critically in comparison with favored players like Lee Morgan or Booker Little than truly appreciating his own thing. And even with the sentimentality of his death, I can’t honestly say I’m going to listen to him more than those guys, or Don Cherry or Red Allen or Leo Smith or Bill Dixon or any of my current heroes. But I can pretty honestly say I might not have become a trumpet player without him. For most of my formative years, 14 to 18 or so, only Miles ranked higher in my personal pantheon.
This was in the late 80s and early 90s, when Freddie was “jazz” for me. It’s somewhat of a forgotten album now, but I played his Bolivia CD constantly, trying to play along with the title track in my bedroom (if I keep practicing it today, in another decade I might be able to manage a couple of the licks), and playing it live with my band at our weekly gig at the ice cream store. Since I am a sentimentalist at heart, probably not the best Freddie clip you can find on youtube, but nonetheless.
He would play in the Boston area a couple of times a year, usually at the Regattabar in Cambridge. I saw him at least four or five times. The last time was very sad, his first tour after losing his chops and it was painful to watch. Where some players (Don Cherry and Miles Davis come to mind) can cope with diminished technique through judicious use of space and phrasing, Freddie’s whole thing was the superhuman nature of his playing, and he seemed truly lost without it. And there was another earlier show with Joe Henderson that was a disappointment, perhaps my introduction to the occasionally desultory nature of presenter-driven “jazz all-star” affairs.
But most of the other shows I caught were scorchers. Freddie playing with his touring band, all over the horn, intense and exciting. I particularly remember one night Betty Carter was in the audience, and he cajoled her into sitting in on a blues. The two masters traded licks, relaxed and laughing, but deeply musical and, no surprise with such competitive souls, gently sparring. It was a revelatory moment for the teenaged me. The personalities of the participants was in full evidence, and the way those personalities were translated into sound. I suddenly understood how much fun this music could be, and how human it was. At that point in my life I had started trying to play jazz, I was listening to it, I was studying it, but that was one of the first times I got it. A fancy supper club in a Cambridge hotel is a long way from 52nd St, but at that moment it didn’t matter, and for that moment I will be forever grateful.