LP REVIEW: Hubert Laws – Afro Classic

Hubert Laws – Afro Classic
(Speakers Corner/CTI 6006. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

Another classic from the CTI (Creed Taylor Incorporated) catalogue, revived on state of the art vinyl by Speakers Corner. These are beautiful, lucid recordings engineered by the great Rudy Van Gelder in December 1970, featuring flautist Hubert Laws as leader. Laws had begun recording his own albums at Atlantic (also the home of Herbie Mann, the other leading exponent of jazz flute) before being lured away by Creed Taylor. Laws’s jazz credentials are flawless, but he also had a considerable presence in the world of classical music — having studied at Juilliard before playing with the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera orchestras. The ‘Classic’ in the title alludes to Laws’s interest in classical music, and in this pursuit he’s aided signifcantly by Don Sebesky, one of CTI’s cornerstone arrangers. Sebesky was a graduate of the Tommy Dorsey and Stan Kenton big bands and had already scored big (in every sense) for Creed Taylor with his work on some bestselling Wes Montgomery albums.

But before the classical explorations we’re treat to an astonishing version of James Taylor’s Fire and Rain. The hesitant lyricism of Laws’s flute sings the theme against a menacing drone of the bass (Ron Carter) and some ominous fragments of percussion (Airto and Richie ‘Pablo’ Landrum) which suggest the darker aspects of the song, before the childlike purity of electric piano by Bob James, echoed by Laws’s flute, profoundly changes the mood. A staccato stutter of military drums (Fred Waits) and fluttering flute effect another transformation. A sustained linear note from Laws fractures into coloured shards and precedes the most striking development in the piece. The song turns into an hallucinogenic tapestry of electronica, combining Gene Bertoncini’s guitar, David Friedman’s fuzz pedal vibes and Bob James’s keyboards and ends with an amazing, sustained electronic shimmer. An acid era masterpiece.

Bach’s Passacaglia In C Minor opens with the powerful, dark murmurings of Ron Carter’s bass, which provides soft shadowed slopes for the bright skating of Bob James’ electric piano. Gene Bertoncini is also a master of the acoustic guitar, as he demonstrates here, and he’s accompanied by Carter doubling on electric cello. Bertoncini’s strumming, Laws’s downward-spiralling flute and Bob James’s descending scales on the electric piano intertwine virtuosically. Meanwhile Airto and Landrum’s catchy ethnic percussion provide some of the ‘Afro’ of the album’s title. James plays his keyboards with a forceful percussive drive which pushes them to the edge of distortion and Fred Waits works alchemy with his drum kit. Bertoncini swaps to electric guitar, Carter saws sour-sweet country licks on the electric cello. Then frayed, worrying phrases played by Laws on electric flute take the piece in a fascinating new direction. Bertoncini returns for a lonely coda on acoustic guitar, ghosted by Carter’s bass before the ensemble returns, joined by Friedman’s vibes.

Attempts at ‘jazz meets classical music’ can go horribly wrong, but the poised beauty and understated elegance of the Passacaglia suggests that it’s a viable form after all. This entire album is also noteworthy for highlighting how effective and utterly musical even the oddest electric instruments can be, when used by the right players working with the right arranger. This is a 1970s classic reborn on vinyl and sounding superb.

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