Vinyl reissue of iconic jazz flautist is revelatory! 

Hubert Laws – Afro-Classic – CTI Records CTI 6006 (1970)/Speakers Corner (2018) 180-gram stereo vinyl, 37:29 ****1/2:

(Hubert Laws – flute; Don Sebesky – arrangements; Ron Carter – bass, electric cello; Dave Friedman – vibes; Gene Bertoncini – guitar; Fred Waits – drums; Richie “Pablo” Landrum – percussion; Airto Moreira – percussion; Bob James – electric piano; Fred Alson Jr. – bassoon)

Houston native, Hiubert Laws approached playing the flute as both a vehicle for classical and jazz music. As a teenager he participated in classical and jazz bands. While on scholarship to the Julliard School Of Music, he performed with with the the New York Metropolitan Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. At the same time, Laws was appearing with jazz acts, including Mongo Santamaria. In 1964, he recorded as a band leader for Atlantic Records. But he hit an artistic peak when he was signed to the CTI label, most notably with Rite Of Spring and Afro Classic. He has worked as a sideman for many artists including Chet Baker, Paul Simon, Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Bernstein, Paul McCartney, Stevie Winder, Bob James, Carly Simon, Sergio Mendes, J.J. Johnson and The Rascals. His flute shadings on Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” are unforgettable.

Speakers Corner has released a re-mastered 180-gram vinyl of Hubert Laws’ 1970 landmark album, Afro Classic. With ambitious panache, Laws combines elements of classical, pop and jazz into vibrant musical translations. Produced by CTI founder Creed Taylor and mixed by legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder, an all-star cadre of musicians (with the help of arranger Don Sebesky) explore a variety of pop standards, classical and film compositions. The goal of this album (as described in the liner notes) was to adapt classical structures to African rhythms. This hybrid genre expansion has been classified as Fusion, but transcends those boundaries The opening track, “Fire And Rain” is a folk-pop landmark and representative of this era. Laws begins with  atmospheric flute accents against sparse percussion and Ron Carter’s menacing double bass. Clearly, the dark melancholy of James Taylor’s seminal composition resonates here. Bob James changes the mood with a playful electric piano line as Gene Bertoncini joins in on acoustic guitar. Laws rejoins the group in a folky, pastoral interlude. Then there is a nimble transition to funky jazz. Laws displays his versatility with shimmering crispness as electric piano, fuzz pedal vibes (Dave Friedman) and guitar set off an acid-tinged salvo that fractures the benign accessibility. On Bach’s “Allegro From Concerto #3 in D”, the ensemble delves into the nuances of classical tempo. After another ruminative section by Carter (who also shines on electric cello), a layered texture is created with bassoon (Fred Alston, Jr.), vibraphone, acoustic guitar and flute. Both Laws and James demonstrate their instrumental agility with emphatic “descending”  solos. Friedman also solos and is joined in counterpoint by flute and bassoon. Laws’ flute playing shifts from festive to ominous with seamless dexterity.

In a surprising move, Laws chose to do a cover of the 1970 “Movie Theme From Love Story”. Also known as “Where Do I Begin”, the piece (written by Francis Lai) became an easy-listening hit for Henry Mancini and an adult contemporary hit for Andy Williams. The romantic, sanguine melody takes a different turn on Afro Classic. After a Bertoncini classical guitar intro, Laws intones with a hypnotic alto flute (with vibrato) as Ron Carter frames the ambience with a delicate, rhythmic (almost tango-infused) double bass. Again, the bassoon is strategically complementary to the flute. When electric piano is added, a Latin-grooved vibe inhabits the trio. Laws then executes an aspirational, complex solo with percussion, adding subtlety. James’ solo is unexpectedly funky and the chemistry with laws is palpable. With grace and interpretive potency, a cinematic aesthetic becomes a jazzy statement.

Laws’ prodigious talent is an integral dynamic on “Passacaglia In C Minor” (Bach). This piece has always been characterized for its variations. Ron Carter opens with a haunting double bass against vibraphone counterpoint. The underlying tempo has a dirge-like resonance. Laws’ wistful flute (with a nimble bassoon follow) is intriguing with well-timed trills. The acoustic guitar adds some richness to the arrangement. James’ electric piano brings some up tempo potency in what feels like a jazz march-time cadence. Laws contributes electric flute as the band expands the musical context. There are some key modulations and the vibraphone run touches on dissonance. There is a finger-snapping prominence that leads into a spacey interlude that utilizes a sawing electric cello solo. This is the most abstract musical expression on the album. The finale, Mozart’s “Flute Sonata In F” exudes a folk charm with flute, bassoon, guitar and vibraphone.

Speakers Corner has dome a superlative job in re-mastering Afro Classic to audiophile vinyl. The quality of the instrumental tonality is stunning. Laws’ flutes are captured with sharp punctuation and slight-vibrato fluidity. The electric piano levels are understated and have very little distortion. The enhanced sounds like the fuzz pedal vibraphone or electric cello are jolting, but never shrill. The overall stereo separation is precise and balanced. The glossy fold out gatefold is luxurious and visually elegant with a beautiful cover photo by Pete Turner.

TrackList:
Side 1: Fire And Rain; Allegro From Concerto #3 in D; Theme From Love Story
Side 2: Passacaglia in C Minor; Flute Sonata in F

—Robbie Gerson

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