This is the album that placed Freddie Hubbard right in the blossoming fusion mainstream, winning him in the process a Grammy for best commercial jazz album. It comes back to life in the guise of a 180gm vinyl reissue courtesy of Pure Pleasure Records who have established quite a respectable catalogue across a number of genres. This reissue is faithful to The CTI sound but has managed to add more colour and dimension. The original CTI sound on this album came across as dry, the musicians were isolated in a spaciousness that was probably due to a much larger than usual acoustic space of the recording studio. By 1971, when First Light was recorded Hubbard had already established himself as the all round trumpet player that everyone wished to study. His ability to dazzle with stunning alacrity and quick-fire phrasing was equally matched by his second to none, rich, elegant tone and an innate sense of melody. Here, it is worth remembering that Hubbard had in fact entered the fusion fray with Red Clay (CTI 1970), a head on meeting of fusion and hard bop but then slipped funk and soul into the mix with Straight Life (CTI 1970). With First Light, his third and final album for CTI, Hubbard boldly decided to expand his project and musical outlook by adding strings whilst continuing with the jazz/funk/soul approach. For years, jazz purists and critics have moaned and groaned about Hubbard’s decision to introduce Don Sebeski’s string arrangements.
Whilst it can’t be denied that mixing jazz with strings has always been a source of argument between jazz fans, here Sebeski somehow charted a far more subtle course than usual. His light as a feather infusion of flute, harp, vibraphone and strings somehow delivers a warm, engaging counterpoint to the solid, hot funkiness produced by bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette. This is most evident on side A. The title track, written by Hubbard, starts off in a guarded fashion almost sounding like a spin off from a Miles electric session then graduating into a bossa driven mid-tempo groove, with the trumpet hitting some exhilarating staccato notes and trills; the drums break the drive with suppleness in changes coloured by the flutes and George Benson soloing as if his life depended on it, pushed by sporadic bursts of horns, woodwinds and violins. Hubbard’s cover of Paul and Linda McCartney’s ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ brings on a fully fledged funk excursion with a sudden turn into hard bop territory. Here, the warm, breezy arrangements create an ideal setting for Hubbard and Benson’s improvisations with Hubert Laws joining in on flute.
Sadly, with the end of side A also comes the end of Benson’s appearance on this recording with Hubbard moving into more lyrical territory. Side B is where Hubbard moves more deeply into the world of melody. The choice of material here is clearly designed to be in tune with a more mainstream audience. But there is still an enormous amount of mileage to be had just by listening to his undoubted artistry when performing a ballad. Henry Mancini’s ‘Moment to Moment’ gets an elegant, sultry rendition with Hubbard’s trumpet sprinkling gold on each single note he plays. Once again, he reminds listeners of his innate ability to discover the inner melody. The soft core approach then becomes even more evident on Sebeski’s ‘Yesterday’s Dreams’. Extended muted trumpet lines bringing tropical heat amidst a sudden outburst of orchestral joy. Whilst undoubtedly firmly of its time, again Hubbard’s ability to wring out every note to its last shred of emotion draws the listener in without fail.
Bernstein’s ‘Lonely Town’ brings the album to a close with its sedate, mournful and somewhat dramatic mixture of harp colours, strings and brass. Hubbard once again playing extended notes saddled with melancholia as bassoons, flutes and violins fuse into a forceful weave, the mid-section then gaining some swing with DeJohnette and Carter keeping a steady groove allowing more exquisite soloing from Hubbard and Richard Wynands on piano. On balance, the undoubtedly soft core production values where firmly of their time and yet Hubbard and co still managed to make this hardly detract from an often moving, uplifting experience fully deserving of many a spin on the turntable.