THESE DAYS it isn't unusual for the art of creating music to be overshadowed by the business of selling music.
In jazz, more than one prominent musician has allowed commercial ambitions to dictate the terms of expression. Charles Earland and Roy Ayers went funky and started to sing. George Benson put more glamour into his act (though he retained his fluid guitar style), and even luminaries like Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie produced disco-flavored albums in an effort to reach more people.
What is a bit frightening is that the approach has been relatively successful, and the homogenized music has resulted in more money and more recognition for its practioners.
That's fine for the benefiting players, but reputations have suffered critically and put many jazz buffs at loose ends. All of which makes the latest records by Chick Corea and Freddie Hubbard a double celebration.
Corea is the keyboard whiz who led innovations in jazz/rock fusion with Return to Forever and expanded the boundaries of the avant-garde during his days with Circle. Corea's new album, Friends (Polydor, Pd-1-6160), is not an innovation but a return to the acoustic patterns at which he excels.Corea has taken the lessons learned as an experimenter and shaped them to the contours of a traditional quartet.
The "friends" included are Joe Farrell (reeds and flute), Steve Gadd (percussion), and Eddie Gomez (bass). That combination draws on various musical experiences but solidifies around a core of modern swing and harmonics.
Farrell has played with Corea before, Gadd is primarily a rock fusionist (Steely Dan, Stuff, vibraphonist Mike Manierl) and Gomez's credentials include years with Bill Evans and freely-constructed duets with flautist Jeremy Steig. Corea has avoided using more modernist acquaintances like Al DiMeola and Stanley Clarke and the resultant music is a revelation.
Except for some brief tinkering on his Fender Rhodes, Corea sticks to the acoustic Steinway. Both "Samba Song" and "Cappucino" weave through varying tempos and key changes without losing their accessible connecting thread. "Cappucino" is a bit looser, but neither flies into the ozone like Circle or reverts to cliched rhythms like some of Return to Forever's material.
In an interview for National Public Radio, Corea noted that he considers the acoustic piano and electric piano two separate instruments and that his approach to each is different. That philosophy is obvious on Friends .
His playing is forceful, yet comfortable and his melodies are less formal than much of his electric material. "Waltse for Dave" (dedicated to Dave Brubeck) exudes warmth and is heightened by Gomez's singing bass, while "The One Step" establishes a bright tempo and then veers into lyrical improvisation. Unlike some of Corea's improvisational work with Anthony Braxton and Miles Davis, this music is more interested in communication than technique.
Technique is a characteristic that can sometimes cover up a lack of ideas, and that was the case recently with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Until now. Hubbard's latest, Super Blue (Columbia, JC 35386), is not particularly daring, but it is a marked improvement over his past few efforts and a step back towards pure jazz.
Hubbard once told jazz critic Leonard Feather, "it's very difficult to stay out of rock and make a living . . . The kids are tuned to that stuff . . . and in order to survive in this system, we have to play music that the masses can relate to."
So Hubbard released albums like Windjammer, Echoes of Blue , and Here to Stay ; albums that offered an occasional flash of technical virtuosity, but were compositionally vacant.
Super Blue gives Hubbard -- surrounded by familiar musicians and sparklingly produced by Dale Oehler --his brain at the same time.
Ironically, all the musicians on Super Blue -- with the exception of keyboardist Kenny Baron -- were members of Creed Taylor's crew of players who were nearly strangled on the mass production of Taylor, Don Sebesky, and, later, Bob James. Here, both Hubert Laws and George Benson (who solos on "To Her Ladyship") sound positively reborn, while Jack DeJohnette and Ron Carter offer their usual inspirational support.
The real inspiration, though, is Hubbard. His influences -- Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, and Dizzy Gillespie -- are clearly defined, but this work is truly his own.
No other trumpeter can grunt and growl in one phrase and then cruise so deftly into smoothness in the next chorus.The title cut's opening solo contains elements of tone and clarity that few musicians can match, and even though there is nothing shockingly new on the album, it succeeds on several levels.
As jazz, it is the closest thing to the "old days" that Hubbard has produced in some time. As popular music, it is varied and exciting. "To Her Ladyship" even manages to be romantic without ever lapsing into sweetness.
Albums like Friends and Super Blue prove that there can be a legitimate middle ground between making good music and making good money. It just takes a lot of talent and enough nerve to take the risk.