JOHN BIRKS (Dizzy) Gillespie set the standard for the modern jazz trumpet with his trail-blazing 1945 bebop collaborations with Charlie Parker. Gillespie's impeccable, overwhelming technique and personality-filled playing set a very high standard, which even he himself has had trouble meeting in succeeding years. Miles Davis escaped Gillespie's shadow by developing a radically different style on the trumpet and moving restlessly through innovative styles. Freddie Hubbard invited comparison to both Gillespie and Davis, suffered the consequences and retreated into pop instrumentals. Now Wynton Marsalis is being acclaimed as the first trumpeter in years likely to match Gillespie at his own game. Yet there are valuable lessons for Marsalis in recent albums by Gillespie, Davis and Hubbard; all four musicians appear at today's Kool Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center.
Gillespie has never lost his talent; when he tries, he still can hit notes harder and surer than any trumpeter alive. What has waivered has been his motivation; his bands are often mediocre, his sets often inconsistent and his own parts often short. His appearance at last year's Montreux (Switzerland) Jazz Festival was one of his better shows and has been released as a double album, "Musician--Composer--Raconteur" (Pablo).
There's nothing quite like Gillespie perfectly measuring a pause in "Olinga" and then biting into the next note with sudden crispness. "Olinga" is joined by two other of Gillespie's best-known compositions, "Manteca" and "Night in Tunisia." Each boasts a memorable melodic figure that Gillespie plays with and against tirelessly. As soon as the trumpet solos begin, they immediately arrest attention with their little looping dives, stuttering transitions and silent spacings that all set up the grand harmonic climaxes. "Brother King" (dedicated to Martin Luther King) and "Con Alma" are slower, moodier pieces where Gillespie's personable tone seems to murmur secrets. While the album is welcome news that Gillespie still can sound vital, it cannot compare to his definitive performances of years gone by.
While Gillespie is condemned to repeat his past successes, Miles Davis has kept pushing forward, constantly searching for new ways to express his ironic view of life. This search has now produced the best electric-jazz album of Davis' career, "We Want Miles" (Columbia). This might seem a strange claim in light of pioneering electric-jazz efforts like his 1969 "Bitches Brew" and his 1971 "Live-Evil." Today those albums sound overly busy; the playing often is exciting but everyone steps on everyone else with no sense of direction or dialogue. When Davis reemerged from retirement last year, he solved these problems by teaching his new young players to put spaces in the music--to use silences to frame their buzzing electric statements. This new approach was tested on last year's "The Man With the Horn," and refined on last year's concert tour. "We Want Miles" is a two-record set culled from three stops on that tour.
The live album's best numbers are the two versions of "Jean Pierre." Like Davis' classic "So What," "Jean Pierre" is built on a simple melody riff that the band states, twists, departs and returns home to. Davis himself has never sounded better on the trumpet. He gives the theme first a lonely call and then an irreverent splat. He plays short phrases that stand out between pointed pauses with his dissatisfied, yearning tone.
Electric guitarist Mike Stern sounds like Davis' friend Carlos Santana, especially on the 15-minute "Fast Track." Stern is not afraid of the metallic, abrasive textures of rock guitar, but he shapes those textures with phrasing clearly learned from Davis. A 20-minute version of George Gershwin's "My Man's Gone Now" is regularly punctuated by jazz-rock rhythm verses that create a tension with the balladic solos by Davis and soprano saxophonist Bill Evans.
Freddie Hubbard first emerged with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and was touted as the trumpeter to watch; convinced he was a superstar, Hubbard and his music stopped growing. In pursuit of the commercial rewards due a superstar, Hubbard began to make pop instrumental albums of the most pandering sort. They bear little relation to jazz and aren't even very good pop music. Typical of this genre is Hubbard's new record "Ride Like the Wind" (Elektra/Musician). Hubbard plays flashy but empty solos over a tame rhythm section, an anonymous-sounding string section and a big band wasted on unison lines. He trivializes Joe Zawinul's "Birdland" and wallows in the triteness of Christopher Cross' "Ride Like the Wind."
Stung by criticism of embarrassments like this, Hubbard has recently returned to his roots in the hard bop of Blakey. He assembled a rhythm section of bassist Larry Klein, drummer Steve Houghton and pianist Billy Childs for two new albums. Saxophonist Joe Henderson and vibist Bobby Hutcherson join them for a live record, "Keystone Bop" (Fantasy); saxophonist Harold Land and percussionist Buck Clark join them for the studio record, "Born to Be Blue" (Pablo). Hubbard gets more help on the live album, as the underrated Henderson takes over "Body and Soul" with an expansive tenor solo, and as Hutcherson dominates his own attractive composition, "The Littlest One of All." But Hubbard himself has never been better as a composer or performer than on "Born to Be Blue." His own "Gibraltar," a quick bop tune, is the perfect vehicle for the accumulating momentum that Hubbard is best at.
On both records, you can hear Hubbard bearing down and trying to rebuild his reputation. He succeeds with hard-hitting trumpet lines that attack from one angle, pull back and attack again from another angle as if digging for something from the song. He may not have the superlative technique of Gillespie and Marsalis or the daring imagination of Davis, but few players do. On these two records, Hubbard acquits himself admirably.