Friday, September 14, 2018

Indy Jazz Fest opens its "Big Beat" year with Freddie Hubbard tribute

Few careers in jazz have jump-started as dramatically with a move from the Heartland to the Big
Pharez Whitted: A voice of his own as he preserves Hubbard legacy.
Apple as Freddie Hubbard's.

As a young trumpeter, Hubbard was fondly remembered in his hometown by a host of fans — including the much younger Pharez Whitted, scion of the Indianapolis-based Hampton family. Twenty-two years his senior, Hubbard blazed a trail for jazz trumpeters in the first post-bop generation and beyond. In his early 20s, he was a fixture at Blue Note for several productive years in the 1960s, showing up every time with indelible things to contribute to some of that decade's most enduring releases.

Whitted, now a fixture in the Chicago jazz scene, stood shoulder to shoulder with Hubbard years ago when an "alternative" jazz festival took the stage in Fountain Square. At the time, Indianapolis' favorite trumpet-playing son was technically hobbled by lip trouble that nearly ended his career. His legacy still burned bright, however, as it does today.

Whitted and six Indianapolis colleagues and old friends displayed that for about 90 minutes Thursday evening at the University of Indianapolis as the Indy Jazz Fest launched its 10-day run around the city. Supporting him were Rob Dixon, saxophones, and Ernest Stuart, trombone, in a formidable front line. Behind them were Reggie Bishop, keys; Steve Weakley, guitar; Jon Wood, electric bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums.

Focusing on Hubbard's hits in an 80th birthday tribute, as Whitted told the audience, only a small sampling could be offered. Tunes from the controversial CTI catalogue opened the show. CTI was a heavily marketed label that for Hubbard started a move toward fusion; for many listeners, it represented a slippery slope from the peak of his early mastery.

Nonetheless, "Povo" (from "Sky Dive") and the title tune on "First Light" started things off handsomely, with lots of open space for solos all around.  Ruth Lilly Performance Hall can easily seem overloaded as a jazz venue, even when the amplified sound is well-managed. Certainly this band made its presence felt fully. Ensemble passages nonetheless were just tightly woven enough to cohere and give the solos something to hang their hats on.

"Straight Life" was launched with a blistering exchange between trumpet and drums, as on the record. Phelps is far from being an exponent of thunder and scatteration like Jack DeJohnette, but he churned up a storm nonetheless to match Whitted's outbursts. Once everyone's attention had been so riveted, the performance featured a fiery trombone solo and a Whitted excursion that started with sly understatement and got progressively hotter.

Everyone's favorite Hubbard ballad, "Little Sunflower," was introduced by fey mutterings from the bass guitar, decorated by Phelps. The tune was stated with tender restraint, and the solos largely followed suit, with Dixon's soprano-sax ruminations, stretching phrases imaginatively athwart the original tune, standing out. A nice coda with simultaneous improvisation rounded it off.

What left me wanting a bit more was the ensemble's excellence in the finale, "Bird Like." Stuart set the tone with the first solo: for all his usual exuberance, I don't often hear that an overarching vision is characteristic of the trombonist. This solo, in contrast, built sensitively — it achieved the time-tested Lester Young standard: It told a story. From then on, we heard excellent Whitted, then some especially cogent Dixon, joined eventually by the other horns coming up with a riff that had the bop-inspired tune looking backward to small-group swing. Capping it all was some delectable playing in the spotlight by veteran guitarist Weakley.

So, that turned out to be all from the Indy Jazz Fest Band to launch the festival. The dictum "leave 'em wanting more" was certainly laid down with authority.

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