arrow
bar_big image

Red Clay: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Ben Gray
Contributing Writer
bengray417@gmail.com

Why not listen to some more jazz that was somewhat famously sampled by A Tribe Called Quest? (What’s up, Ronnie Foster?) Unlike Ronnie Foster, who is best known for the immensely sample-able bassline he wrote for “Mystic Brew”, Freddie Hubbard is an immensely influential trumpet player, having played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Eric Dolphy, Herbie Hancock, and led his own groups on some incredible albums, including three that were recorded for CTI in the early 1970’s: Red Clay, First Light, and Straight Life. I’ll take a look at the title track from Red Clay for this column.

“Red Clay” opens the album of the same name with a long introductory vamp before the groove comes in with the song’s main head. Hubbard is joined here by Herbie Hancock on Rhodes, Joe Henderson on sax, Ron Carter on bass, and Lenny White on drums. While Hubbard’s trumpet moans in this intro, Henderson’s sax joins the undercurrent of White’s rolling drums, Hancock’s Rhodes lines, and Ron Carter’s turbulent bass. At about 1:10, the unaccompanied drumbreak starts, followed by the song’s bassline and then the Rhodes. The horns bring the melody at about 1:25. Hubbard’s trumpet solo starts around 2:25 over relaxed Rhodes, bass, and drums. Around 2:55, White shifts to his ride cymbal and Hubbard picks up his solo’s intensity briefly, then calms back down a bit. After some nice relaxed playing, the intensity is back up around 3:20 as Hubbard hits a high note then continues to move his solo along. Around 3:55, he plays some fast 2-note patterns that I associate with Hubbard’s playing. Hubbard’s solo ends around 4:30, leading to Herbie’s solo. His playing is good here, though perhaps not the most exciting Herbie Hancock I’ve ever heard with Ron Carter’s bass backing him. Around 5:30, he plays some chords on the Rhodes and the horns come back in with a 3-note pattern behind the continuing Rhodes solo until about 6:00. Herbie’s solo continues until about 6:30, dissolving into Joe Henderson’s sax solo. Starting somewhat hesitantly with some sparse notes, Henderson hits on some phrases that remind me very much of Hubbard’s trumpet playing around 7:00 - great stuff. Around 7:30 or so, Hancock finds some nice Rhodes patterns behind Henderson’s solo and shortly after that, around 7:45 or so, Hubbard’s trumpet adds some rhythmic pushes behind Henderson’s solo in unison with Hancock’s Rhodes chords, leading to a climax around 8:20 with both Hubbard’s trumpet and Henderson’s sax reaching toward the upper register. Henderson’s sax solo goes on a bit longer after that before a bass solo from Ron Carter starting around 8:55. He sticks mostly with variations on the song’s bassline, leading up to some mostly open drumbreaks around 10:00, after which the theme returns around 10:15 or 10:20. I love how Hubbard bends some of the notes down here at the end, making it sound like time is stretching a bit. The drums, bass, and Rhodes take the groove on their own from about 11:20 until 11:45 or so, when the group returns to something like the introduction to the song. Solid playing from everyone here, a highlight is Henderson’s sax solo, both in his phrasing that sounds very influenced by Hubbard’s trumpet solo and in the climax around 8:20 with Hubbard’s trumpet joining in with the drums, bass, and Rhodes. The tune is a real earworm for me, and I do like this version, but I can’t help but feel like it needs some more fire behind it - maybe it’s just the way this was recorded, I’m not sure.

The Red Clay reissue includes a bonus live version of the title track from 1971, featuring Stanley Turrentine on sax, George Benson on guitar, Johnny Smith on organ and electric piano, Ron Carter on bass, Airto Moriera on percussion, and Billy Cobham on drums. It’s a similar arrangement to the studio version, with the exception of Benson’s guitar solo added before the keyboard solo. Billy Cobham’s drums knock a little more than Lenny White’s from the studio version overall, which is welcome. I think Hubbard plays up the pitch bends a little more during the song’s main theme that I mentioned from the studio version (check around 1:53-1:56 or so for this). The electric piano gets lost a little bit in the mix on this version with Benson’s guitar taking most of the comping duties. Hubbard’s solo is nice, also playing on a lot of bent notes and leading to a climax around 4:00-4:10 while he holds a high note and Cobham’s cymbals crash. Turrentine’s sax solo is next, really working the crowd and building grooves throughout. As on the studio version, Hubbard’s trumpet adds some punch behind the solo just before 7:00. Benson’s guitar solo comes next, and he also builds some nice grooves (check out 8:20-8:30 or so). Cobham’s hi-hat is a little much in here, but that’s just my taste I guess. Smith’s keyboard solo starts around 10:40 and it’s fine, though not a highlight of this version to my ears. After the keyboard solo, the whole band is really in jam mode while Hubbard’s trumpet takes the lead before heading into Ron Carter’s brief bass solo just before 15:00, leading back to the theme around 15:30. They play through the head before some sort of jokey stuff at the end from Hubbard’s trumpet around 17:10 or so, then back to something like the introduction starting around 18:00. Some more fire on this one, and it seems pretty clear that all of the soloists are playing great and really pushing on the groove - I’m guessing the crowd would have eaten this stuff up.

Another live version of this tune featuring Freddie Hubbard on trumpet is on the VSOP Quintet’s Tempest in the Colosseum from 1977, led by Herbie Hancock on acoustic piano with Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. After the opening vamp, Carter’s bassline opens the tune around 1:20 at a faster tempo than the versions on Red Clay before Hancock’s piano and then Williams’ drums join in. This version sounds much better to my ears than either of the versions above - I’ll chalk that up to Williams’ drumming, I think, and the more up-front sound of Ron Carter in this recording. Carter’s bass is very prominent for Hubbard’s trumpet solo - I think this bass tone really works well for this song, though I suspect that tone isn’t to everyone’s taste. So it goes - around 3:20, they are in a great groove... I love how Herbie’s piano responds to Hubbard’s trumpet line around 3:40. Throughout this solo, the piano and trumpet sound really connected. Hubbard plays some really acrobatic-sounding lines around 5:15 to end his solo before Wayne Shorter’s solo starting around 5:25 or so. Hancock and Carter lay down a nice bed of descending chords and walking bass around 6:00, and this builds gradually and organically over the next couple of minutes before things drop out a bit around 8:00 and Shorter’s solo ends around 8:20, leading to a piano solo. It’s a busy-sounding piano solo that relaxes a little around 9:15 or so. Kind of a strange pause around 9:30, but Herbie comes back in a few seconds later sounding energized and the solo continues. Ah, he hits on some nice phrasing around 11:10 that works really, really well... they bring back the head around 11:30 or so really nicely - the solos are great, but this band as a unit is shockingly good. Shorter and Hubbard have some nice back and forth after they go through the head, with Hancock’s piano in the mix here - around 13:15 I don’t know how they’re doing it and making it work, but this is so good... Shortly after this the song ends. Great playing all around, I loved this version of this tune, plenty of the fire I wish was in more abundance on Red Clay. Wow.

More recently, Soil & Pimp Sessions (I don’t name the bands, don’t ask me) played “Red Clay” on their 2007 album Pimpoint. This Japanese band features Tabu Zombie on trumpet, Motoharu on sax, Josei on keys, Akita Goldman on bass, and Midorin on drums. Rather than opening with a wailing trumpet-led vamp, this version starts with a stripped-down version of the “Red Clay” bassline and it’s clear that this will be a heavy groove from the get-go... When the drums come in around 0:15, it’s with a funkier break (no offense, Lenny White) than in the original versions from Freddie Hubbard. As on the version above from the VSOP quintet, the keyboard is an acoustic piano rather than the Rhodes. Straight through the head, the drums and bass are absolutely locked together leading to a very high-energy sax solo starting at around 1:20 or so. Great, high-energy soloing here that the drummer goes with in lockstep before a breakdown around 2:40. A piano solo follows, keeping the energy level extremely high. Interesting to hear how the bass player plays behind these solos - it’s the “Red Clay” chords, but with an interesting, sort of Latin feel. The piano solo ends around 3:50 and the funk is back as the trumpet player comes in with some delay effects - this works really well for me in this section, particularly around 4:30-4:50 or so... wow. The head comes back at about 5:15, and the band’s energy from their solos carries through to their restatement of the head. My good friend and I were just talking about Soil & Pimp, and he said when he saw them live, the energy level was so high it was almost absurd. I can imagine that, after hearing this version of “Red Clay.” The VSOP Quintet brought the fire that I thought was somewhat lacking in the original versions, along with some crazy stuff, pulling music out of the clouds to come up with something completely new. Soil & Pimp aren’t trying to come up with something completely new here, just to play the shit out of this tune. Excellent solos all around and I really liked the delay effect on the trumpet, a super high-energy version of “Red Clay.”

The last version of this tune I’ll mention is from José James. Before I get to this one, a bit of background. Go check these out:

Ok, all set? José James does a version of “Park Bench People” over “Red Clay” with “Winter in America” as an interlude. Got that? “Park Bench People” starts around 28:15 in the video below, where James is joined by Richard Spavens on drums, Kris Bowers on keys, Takuya Kuroda on trumpet, Solomon Dorsey on bass, and Alister White on trombone (I should mention that this video is from James’ performance at the 2012 iTunes festival. That is available for purchase, but the purchase doesn’t include “Park Bench People” or the other cover from this set, Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.”) James starts “Park Bench People” with what sounds like a DJ’s cuts of his own vocals (a trick he likes to use to good effect - check out some of his live versions of “Trouble” up on YouTube) before the full band comes in playing the “Red Clay” chords and bassline behind his vocals. In the Freestyle Fellowship original, the instrumental does sound a lot like “Red Clay,” but it’s not the full tune - this band really took it there, and it’s a great version of the song using the original arrangement by Freddie Hubbard behind James’ very strong arrangement of the “Park Bench” vocal. As the song moves into the second verse, the instrumental behind James loosens up a bit and there are quite a few additions to this arrangement that are from Freestyle Fellowship and not from Hubbard’s composition... Around 30:30, James’ vocal soars on the lyric “...the people fall apa-a-a-a-a-a-art,” moving into Takuya Kuroda’s trumpet solo over some chords that sound related to, but maybe not directly from the “Red Clay” arrangement as the band moves toward “Winter in America” starting around 32:15 without missing a beat. Nice funky vamp around 33:15 or so... Around 33:45 the band moves back into “Park Bench People” as James calls for just the drums and then moves into a great rhythmic experiment with Spavens - compare this to the Freestyle Fellowship version - this is such an ambitious arrangement of this song, and it’s working so well here... Around 35:10 or so, the band moves into “Red Clay” outright, playing the song’s head with James’ vocal doubling Kuroda’s trumpet. Unlike the Freddie Hubbard original, the band takes it to a fairly calm ending, dissolving into a slower, funky vamp while James assures us that we’ll never see him go down. Unbelievable. The band does a great version of “Red Clay,” and pull of a super-ambitious (re-)arrangement of an obscure Freestyle Fellowship tune with Gil Scott-Heron. What? Amazing.

Well, I know I said that would be the last version I’d mention, but there’s another essential version of Jose James doing “Park Bench People” over Soil & Pimp Sessions’ arrangement of “Red Clay” out there. I won’t go into this in detail except to say that everyone is killing this. Check out the vocal/sax exchange and the energy of the whole band throughout:

Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” is a great tune in its first incarnation on the album of the same name; to my ears, later performances of this tune were more exciting listens than the original studio version. Hubbard, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter revisiting the tune on Tempest at the Colosseum, for example, featured some great improvisations from the individual players and from the group as a whole. The directions that Soil and Pimp Sessions and Jose James have taken this tune really push the groove to the forefront without sacrificing the improvisatory element. What a tune… after listening to these versions for the column, “Red Clay” absolutely will not leave my head - not a bad thing. Keep listening.

Ben Gray is a listener with a lot of ideas about this music around in his head.