Straight Life really affected me when I first heard it. There is an atmosphere to it - part adventure, part funk, and some semi-normal jazz for the infernal purists. A streetwise feel dominates the first two tracks - improvisation clearly was the focus rather than side effect. The grooves are so damn solid and funky that you realize this is not a jazz album at all. As to the affect...okay, sounds stupid as hell... Straight Life makes you feel really cool. So not only does Freddie Hubbard establish a unique atmosphere, he also manages to take you out of yourself and nearly establish a new attitude.
I shouldn't give Hubbard all the credit; here's the highlights of this incredible lineup...George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Joe Henderson, and Jack DeJohnette.
I suppose I should mention that the album only consists of three tracks. But that's the nature of this form, and if listeners can approach it as an adventure it becomes apparent why these are necessary lengths. Each song is an experience, and goes a long way to expand the ever decreasing American attention span. It's also a nice way to protest the crap that passes for interesting music these days. Sure it's 29 years old, but have you noticed how the vintage stuff sounds so much more vital these days than say Eagle Eye Cherry or, dare I say it, 3rd Eye Blind (stifle your giggles!).
The title track clocks in at 17:23, which sounds intimidating; however, the first trills from Hubbard's trumpet indicate this will be a different trip. Impeccable percussion combined with Ron Carter's granite-like foundation launches Hubbard into a surprisingly memorable melody. And that's the key to Straight Life: this shit is accessible, you just don't know it.
There's melody here - and it's in your face funky - rarified by the controlled fury of the cast. This is the kind of melody that will remain embedded in your cortex for more than an hour. "Straight Life" has an almost Latin flavor to it. Henderson's sax solo in the first five minutes explores the rhythm, flirting with the edges of it but remaining strong - then a hint of be-bop followed by a squeal of agony or whatever it is you want it to be.
Returning to relaxed vamp on the main theme, Benson begins his solo with his trademark ultra-tasty runs and hazardous scale work. His is a sound often imitated, but within this context, it becomes something completely different. It's tough.
"Mr. Clean" is a dirge that is part blues and part Miles groove. Again it is up front in the soundstage, with an ominous twisted jazz feel hovering in the background. Hancock's electric piano work adds a Bitches Brew feel to the rhythm - but as the album liner notes say, in contrast to Bitches Brew, there are no doubled instruments here; no busy rhythmic textures; these sounds are as immediate and catchy as pop tunes.
Benson solos over the intro, setting up Hubbard's entrance. The melody is almost like a fanfare, with a lilting figure that sounds so jazzy within the context of the groove. "Mr. Clean" is a modest 13 and a half minutes long, and follows much the same pattern as "Straight Life", in that it features opportunities for all the players to solo over the main theme.
The third track, "Here's That Rainy Day", is a standard that Hubbard, Carter and Benson beautifully recreate on flugelhorn, bass, and electric guitar respectively. Considering the first two gritty tracks, this standard is a modest and quiet way to say goodbye. It's a soothing take, something that is almost necessary after the assault of the first two songs.
Hubbard has had his ups and downs as a player, stooping to the level of smooth jazz with some awful releases in the mid to late 70s and early 80s. In his prime there was a definitive artfulness about the way he played - he seems to have a natural gift for melody, and this makes even the long songs on Straight Life bearable to listeners with a modicum of perception and interest in music. Fortunately CTI has re-released Straight Life in a beautifully packaged foldout. This one comes highly recommended.