The Case for Hubert Laws

The 2011 class of National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters, the highest honor this country bestows on living jazz artists and advocates, is not without controversy.  There’s been much conversation about the unprecedented elevation of the entire Marsalis Family; and just the other day while doing some research at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University’s Newark campus, I overheard two musicians debating the merits of Johnny Mandel being named a NEA Jazz Master to represent the composer/arranger’s art on this occasion.  Their words were to the effect that Mandel’s merits otherwise are without question, but as a jazz master(?).  From my perspective Mandel’s wizardry on NEA Jazz Master Shirley Horn’s striking album Here’s to Life, with strings, alone would bear this consideration; evidence: the title track and especially the heartbreaking string arrangement on "If You Love Me."

But the name from this year’s class that took me back a bit, in a fit of warm nostalgia, was flutist Hubert Laws.  In jazz there have been few absolutes, despite decades of all manner of popularity polls.  Sure, there are a handful that standout; for example the greatest living tenor saxophonist is without question NEA Jazz Master Sonny Rollins; and the three pillars of jazz history remain Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker, the fourth being a tossup between NEA Jazz Master Miles Davis and John Coltrane


Another of the few certainties is that Hubert Laws is the greatest living flute specialist in jazz history.  Notice I said specialist; certainly his peers on the instrument include such worthies as fellow NEA Jazz Masters Yusef Lateef, James Moody, and the late Eric Dolphy, (who unfortunately passed prior to the inception of the program in ’82) — doublers all.  The case for Laws is admittedly weakened by several choices of recorded material, including a soft underbelly of flyweight fluff from his CTI days.  But it is precisely that segment of the Laws discography, bordered by a couple of fine earlier dates for the Atlantic label, that is the core of his recorded work to consider.  Those CTI dates, which carry me back to my formative college years in the late 60s/early 70s, were also notable for ample displays of Hubert Laws’ enormous classical chops.  And there’s where some may get stuck in their consideration of Laws jazz credentials.

There are some who dismiss Laws for the crystal clarity of his dexterity, or his rich and pristine tone on the instrument — ‘lacks grit’ some might declare.  But for serious consideration of Hubert Laws considerable jazz bonafides, don’t sleep on the following performances:

"Airegin" from In The Beginning (CTI)

"Equinox" from Wild Flower (Atlantic)

"Windows" from Laws Cause (Atlantic)

"Moment’s Notice" from In The Beginning (CTI) (also available on a "Best Of" compilation on Columbia)


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5 Responses to The Case for Hubert Laws

  1. If so-called “flyweight fluff” is the criteria for dismissal, then Herbie Hancock (“Rockit”), Freddie Hubbard (Atlantic “fluf”), Lee Morgan (“The Sidewwinder”) and Miles Davis (covers of Michael Jackson and Cindy Lauper songs) are all dismissed! Hubert is in some hip company.

  2. Craig Taylor says:

    The case for Hubert Laws as an NEA Jazz Master is underwhelming. True, he is a musician blessed with prodigious technical prowess and a facility to adapt to diverse musical situations; however, there is nothing memorable or noteworthy about his body of work that suggests he is deserving of such recognition.

  3. Eric Gould says:

    I would certainly include his work as a sideman on McCoy Tyner’s award-winning release “Fly With the Wind,” and Chick Corea’s “Sundance” as indicative of some of his best jazz work. As far as the purity of his tone is concerned (“lack grit”), there are many flutists who would advocate for him over others in large part because of that. It is easy to recognize when the flute is one’s second (or third) instrument.

  4. Jay Spark says:

    I consider Hubert Laws probably the best flute player I have ever heard. His mastery, melodic inventiveness, and gorgeous tone, especially on his 70’s CTI releases, have shown me how beautiful a sound the flute can make. As an example of his greatness, listen to his recording with composer Claude Bolling of California suite, and compare it with the same composer’s recording of Flute Suite with flautist Jean Pierre Rampal, arguably one of the twentieth century’s most lauded classical performers. Laws subtleties of tone and amazing technique, in my opinion, outshine the considerable gifts of Rampal. A true master.

  5. Scott says:

    Also check out his contribution to Stanley Turrentine’s 1993 CD If I Could – Hubert’s solo on Caravan is up there with Moments Notice and Airegin.

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