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March 16, 2011

Music Professor’s Album Honors Jazz Trumpet Legend

 Professor Suzanne Pittson

Suzanne Pittson, Assistant Professor of Jazz Vocal Studies

Suzanne Pittson’s Recording Pays Tribute to ‘Mentor’ Freddie Hubbard With Lyrics Written to his Music

Suzanne Pittson, assistant professor of jazz vocal studies at The City College of New York, is a longtime fan of Freddie Hubbard, the late jazz trumpeter.  She considers him a mentor, even though she did not meet him until a few months before his death in 2008.  

As a tribute to Hubbard, she, her husband, pianist Jeff Pittson, and their teenage son, Evan, wrote lyrics to several of his tunes.  She recently released “Out of the Hub: The Music of Freddie Hubbard” on Vineland Records, which features their lyrics on six of the 11 tracks.  Besides the Pittsons, the recording features trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist Steve Wilson, drummer Willie Jones III and bassist John Patitucci, Pittson’s faculty colleague at CCNY.  It is her third album.

Professor Pittson was a teenager  when she first heard Hubbard perform with a group called VSOP that included saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter, a City College distinguished professor emeritus.  “I loved his trumpet solos,” recalls Professor Pittson, a classically trained pianist. “When I decided to become a jazz singer, I wanted to be a soloist of his caliber.”

She began to transcribe Hubbard’s solos and sing them as scat.  Then she started using her skills as a musicologist to analyze and figure out what his actual language was so she could incorporate it into her own.

The language of jazz, she explains, consists of three elements: scales, arpeggios and chromatics.  How artists put them together and use them over a tune’s chord progression is how they create their unique style.

The Pittsons began to work on the Freddie Hubbard project in 2003.  Husband Jeff had previously written lyrics to a Hubbard tune, “Sky Dive. “  At that point, Professor Pittson decided to record an album of Hubbard compositions with original lyrics.

“We picked tunes whose melodies I really like,” she recalls.  “We would take the title of a piece and write a story to it.”  For example, for the track “Crisis,” she starts telling of a crisis in a personal relationship that broadens out into the theme of global crisis, and concludes that people need to resolve crises through dialogue.

In 2008, Professor Pittson and her husband met Freddie Hubbard at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York and told him about the project.  Hubbard was pleased and put them in touch with his publisher, Laurie Goldstein.

A glitch soon arose.  Ms. Goldstein informed them that Hubbard did not own the rights to several of the compositions they had written lyrics for.  To complete the album, they picked some new numbers from the Hub Tones catalog and also included a few standards that Hubbard had recorded but had not written.

When setting lyrics to an existing instrument composition, the lyricist needs to get the composer or publisher’s legal permission.  However, after the Pittsons sent their lyrics to Ms. Goldstein, Hubbard almost got cold feet.  

“Freddie didn’t really know me and didn’t have confidence that a vocalist could sing his music,” Professor Pittson recalls. “He wanted to hear me sing a couple of his tunes, so we recorded a quick demo in our home studio.  I consider his asking for and giving enthusiastic approval to the project a badge of honor.”

The recording has received critical acclaim, as well.  Andrew Vélez’ review at “The New York City Jazz Record” praises Professor Pittson’s “high and sweet soprano” voice, adding “her fun with the music is clear, irresistible and further evidence that we have a fresh new jazzbird to celebrate.”

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