by Ian Mann
February 11, 2019
A highly skilled and interactive quartet that helped to bring the music of Freddie Hubbard to life in a series of colourful interpretations of some of the trumpeter’s most enduring compositions.
Bryan Corbett / Tom Hill Quartet ‘Ready for Freddie’
The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 09/02/2019.
For Shrewsbury Jazz Network the start of 2019 has been heralded by a clarion call of trumpets.
SJN’s January event featured Total Vibration, a quartet incorporating the twin trumpet front line of Chris Batchelor and Laura Jurd teamed with the stellar rhythm partnership of bassist Tom Herbert and drummer Corrie Dick.
Unfortunately I was unable to cover that performance as I was attending a memorial event in my native Leominster celebrating the life of the late Dave Witherstone, who died suddenly in late 2018. Liverpool born Dave was a talented saxophonist who played with various local jazz and soul bands and was once the proprietor, together with his wife Sue, of the Blue Note Café Bar in Leominster, the intimate venue named after the famous record label, that brought top quality live jazz to Leominster in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The Blue Note regularly featured leading musicians from the Birmingham jazz scene of the time, among them trumpeters Bryan Corbett and Ray Butcher and saxophonists Andy Hamilton, Luke Shingler, Andy Gale and Papa Saxa (from hit-makers The Beat). Others to appear there included pianist Levi French, vocalists Roy Forbes and Esther Miller and bassists Tom Hill and Ben Hazelton.
Corbett, himself a Herefordshire lad, was a particular favourite with Leominster audiences and played the Blue Note many times in his formative years, often in a duo setting with pianist Levi French. I witnessed many of these performances and have been a huge admirer of Corbett’s playing ever since.
Although never a particularly prolific composer Corbett has recorded fairly frequently, beginning in 1999 with “Funk in the Deep Freeze”. In 2000 “Simply Blue”, the title track a Corbett original honouring the Leominster Blue Note, was the first of a number of live albums in the classic trumpet/ piano/bass/drums quartet format, the latest, the double set “Message of Iridescence” being released in 2015. “Corbenova” (2003) and “Pressure Valve” (2006) found the trumpeter experimenting with electronics and ‘nu-jazz’. By way of contrast he has also recorded two intimate acoustic duo sets with pianists Levi French and Chris Dodd. Corbett has also been a busy presence on the session scene, frequently performing as part of the touring bands of rock and pop acts, among them US3, McFly and Tony Christie.
The co-leader of tonight’s quartet was the bassist and occasional vocalist Tom Hill, an expatriate American who has been based in Droitwich, Worcestershire for many years, a great stalwart of the Birmingham music scene and a huge favourite with Midlands jazz audiences. Something of a ‘character’ the versatile Hill is also an actor and voice-over artist, familiar to TV viewers as the voice of Tony the Tiger in the Kellogg’s Frosties adverts! Under the professional name of Tom Clarke-Hill he has also lent his voice to other advertisements, Hollywood animation movies and numerous computer games.
As a musician Hill is a superlative bass player who leads his own bands and is also the first call bassist for visiting soloists such as saxophonists Peter King, Brandon Allen and Sam Crockatt among others. His own groups include the Straitjackets and the marvellously named ZZ Bop plus a blues trio that places a greater emphasis on his vocal abilities. Hill is a supremely versatile musician and all round entertainer.
Tonight’s line up brought together elements of both Corbett and Hill’s regular groups. At the keyboard was Corbett’s regular pianist from his own quartet, the excellent Al Gurr. Meanwhile drummer Nick Millward has been a regular member of Hill’s various groups as well as working with musicians of the calibre of pianist Dave Newton and saxophonist Amy Roberts.
Corbett’s trumpet hero has always been the late, great Freddie Hubbard (1938 -2008) and sometime back he and Hill put together a programme titled “Ready for Freddie”, taken from the name of one of the trumpeter’s Blue Note label albums, which toured the UK’s jazz clubs to considerable audience acclaim. For this SJN performance it was decided to revive the project and over the course of two sets a typically large and receptive audience was able to enjoy a host of fine material either written by, or associated with, Hubbard. I haven’t listened to Freddie in a long time and it was good to be reminded of just what a fine composer he was, his tunes bright, memorable and hooky, and perfect vehicles for the kind of inventive and imaginative jazz improvisation that the Corbett/Hill quartet brought to them.
The quartet opened with Hubbard’s Latin flavoured “Gibraltar”, which commenced with a fiery unaccompanied burst from Corbett’s trumpet, which was answered by Millward’s drums. Hill then established the bass groove around which the body of the tune was based. Corbett took the first solo, his playing combining power and stridency with an admirable litheness and fluency. The trumpeter spent a number of years off the scene due to illness and tonight was the first time that I’d seen him perform in a very long time. To theses ears his playing is now better than ever, demonstrating an impressive maturity and here rendered all the more remarkable by being entirely acoustic and un-miked. Gurr followed at his Roland keyboard, favouring the type of ‘Rhodes’ electric piano sound that Hubbard’s bands featured on the trumpeter’s numerous albums for producer Creed Taylor’s CTI label in the 1970s. Gurr proved to be a highly imaginative and inventive keyboard soloist and his contribution throughout the evening was consistently impressive.
The next to shine was Hill with a solo that combined a huge, meaty bass tone with an admirable dexterity. There was also something of a drum feature for Millward in the tune’s closing stages.
Hubbard had a knack of writing complex, but catchy and memorable, melodic hooks, a characteristic that distinguished both “Gibraltar” and the following “Red Clay”. The latter was the title track of a 1970 album for CTI and has since become one of Hubbard’s most famous compositions. After another fan-faring intro Hill again set up the bass motif that was to frame Corbett’s rendition of the famous melody. Typically fiery and inventive solos followed from Corbett on trumpet, Gurr on keyboard and Hill at the bass, the latter, ever the joker, tossing a quote from “Sunny” into the mix, amusing both his bandmates and the audience alike. This was followed by another bout of dynamic trumpet soloing from Corbett.
Corbett moved to flugelhorn for the ballad “The Summer Knows”, written by the recently deceased Michel Legrand and recorded by Hubbard for CTI in the 70s. Although a fiery hard bop soloist Corbett is also a sensitive interpreter of ballads, his emotive reading of “My Funny Valentine” was always a stand out at those long ago Blue Note, Leominster performances. Tonight his lucid, velvety flugel soloing was given sympathetic support by sparse piano chording, languid double bass and delicately brushed drums, with Gurr also soloing with considerable lyricism at the keyboard.
Corbett remained on flugel for the rest of the first set. “Sky Dive”, the title track of another Hubbard CTI album, was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied double bass by Hill, joined by keys and drums prior to Corbett’s theme statement and subsequent solo. The good natured interplay between Hill on bass and Gurr on keyboards was a particular feature of the evening, as evidenced by a typically inventive Gurr piano solo to which Hill responded with some equally imaginative bass counter melodies as Millward anchored the proceedings. Following Corbett’s flugel solo the pair renewed their dialogue prior to a closing drum feature from Millward.
The first set concluded with what is arguably Hubbard’s most famous composition, the jazz waltz “Up Jumped Spring”, with Corbett’s graceful theme statement and solo on flugel followed by an expansive outing from Gurr at the keyboard. The co-leaders then enjoyed an intimate flugel and bass dialogue before keys and drums returned as the piece resolved itself.
This had been an excellent first half which was very well received by a typically knowledgeable Shrewsbury audience.
Set two commenced with “The Intrepid Fox”, another composition from Hubbard’s classic “Red Clay” album. Again Hill’s bass groove set the pace, his propulsive playing fuelling a blazing solo from Corbett, now back on trumpet. Gurr and Hill himself also featured as soloists on this spirited, attention grabbing set opener.
For most of the evening Hill handled the announcements with his characteristic quick wit, only passing the vocal mic to Corbett if the trumpeter wished to introduce a tune that held a particular significance for him. The next piece wasn’t announced at all as the band launched straight into it, Hill beginning the tune at the bass, his melodic hook cum groove prompting Corbett into a powerful, blues inflected trumpet solo over an insistent urban groove. Gurr’s keyboard solo included a subtly funky dialogue with Millward’s drums on a tune that Hill subsequently informed us was “Povo”, another piece from Hubbard’s “Sky Dive” album.
Corbett briefly switched back to flugel for the ballad “It Never Entered My Mind” which found Gurr favouring an acoustic piano sound for his solo and saw Hill giving a brief demonstration of his vocal abilities with a brief rendition of the song’s lyrics.
Corbett announced “Wheel Within A Wheel”, a tune written by the great alto saxophonist Bobby Watson for the 1980s edition of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in which he and Hubbard both played. This proved to be one of the stand out performances of the night, opening in piano trio mode but with Corbett taking the first solo on trumpet. Gurr followed at the keyboard, injecting a Coltrane inspired quote from “My Favourite Things” into his solo. Following features for Hill and Millward Corbett undertook another blazing solo before concluding the piece with a solo trumpet cadenza.
An aside – I recall seeing Watson twice at Brecon Jazz Festival back in the day. On his first appearance he fronted a British trio led by pianist Robin Aspland at an outdoor gig as part of the Stroller programme. This was such a brilliant performance that he was invited back the following year to lead his own band on the concert programme at Theatr Brycheniog. These were both terrific shows and I’ve been something of a fan ever since.
“First Light”, the title track of the Hubbard’s 1971 album for CTI, was introduced by Gurr at the keyboard, the pianist establishing the groove that later propelled solos from Corbett on trumpet and Gurr, himself, again favouring an acoustic piano sound.
Finally we heard Herbie Hancock’s classic “Maiden Voyage”, the title track of the pianist’s 1965 album for Blue Note Records, a recording that featured Hubbard as part of an all star quintet that also included saxophonist George Coleman, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. This modern day standard saw Gurr take the first solo at the keyboard, followed by Hill on melodic double bass and Corbett at the trumpet, with a feature for Millward also incorporated into the arrangement.
Tonight was Corbett’s first performance at The Hive for nine years and it represented something of a triumphant return. Together with a highly skilled and interactive quartet he helped to bring the music of Freddie Hubbard to life in a series of colourful interpretations of some of the trumpeter’s most enduring compositions. It was a performance that placed a high premium on improvisation, although the band members were reading their charts off i-pads – I wonder what Freddie would have made of that!
There was some great playing all round from a very well balanced quartet that not only encouraged the listener to check out the back catalogues of Corbett and Hill but also to dive deep into the Hubbard archive, particularly his oft maligned 70s output for CTI, obviously Corbett’s favourite period. As tonight showed Hubbard was still writing some great tunes during those years, even if his treatment of them didn’t always sit well with the music critics of the time. “Red Clay” is generally accepted as something of a high watermark but tonight’s performance suggested that a re-appraisal of the rest of Hubbard’s CTI catalogue is well overdue.
The highly skilled and vivacious playing allied to the good natured presentation of tonight’s material was a cut above the usual jazz ‘tribute’ set and earns the quartet a four star rating as a result.
It was good to speak to Bryan afterwards for the first time in many years. He tells me that he is also involved in putting together a 1959 themed show that will honour the numerous landmark jazz albums of that year – Miles Davis’ “Kind Of Blue”, Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out”, Charles Mingus’ “Ah Um” Ornette Coleman’s “The Shape of Jazz to Come” etc. This is something that should also be well worth checking out if it comes to your area.
Finally we both remembered Dave Witherstone, one suspects that he would have loved tonight’s performance from Bryan, Tom and the quartet.blog comments powered by Disqus