I listen to quite a bit of smooth jazz or jazz fusion songs, but I have a hard time thinking of any artists in those genres that specialize in playing the flute. I’ve heard Najee play the flute on a few tracks, but he’s primarily known as a saxophonist. In fact, the smooth jazz and jazz fusion genres are filled with saxophone players, many of whom were inspired by Grover Washington, Jr. and David Sanborn, among others. But not too many flutists. Back in the 1970s, there were several notable flutists: Hubert Laws and Herbie Mann were two of the greats of the genre, playing on their own recordings as well as doing session work for other artists. The first female flutist of note arrived in the early 70s, and became very popular once her third album Blacks & Blues was released in 1973. Her name is Bobbi Humphrey, and I’ll feature a few of her songs today for Smooth Jazz Sunday.
Humphrey grew up in Dallas, and studied the flute in high school and college. It was at a talent show at Southern Methodist University that she was seen by jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie. He advised her to move to New York to begin a career in music. Not long after that she was signed to Blue Note Records, then an important jazz label that was beginning to make inroads into fusion. Working with the Mizell brothers (Larry and Fonce), her sound was similar to her label mate Donald Byrd, who was also working with the Mizell brothers at the time. Blacks & Blues featured a very popular song called “Harlem River Drive,” which became her entry on R&B stations and broadened her audience. It also got her invited to the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland
After leaving Blue Note Records, Humphrey signed with Epic Records, where she made three well-regarded albums. I’ve chosen two songs from her second Epic album, Freestyle for today’s post. I chose them because my cousin had this album in his collection and I listened to it very often. Prior to signing with Epic, she was given the opportunity to work with Stevie Wonder on his Songs In The Key Of Life album, where she contributed a flute solo towards the end of the song “Another Star.” Wonder, as he often did during the 70s, found his way onto Humphrey’s album to return the favor. He contributed the song “Home-Made Jam” that he wrote, and also played harmonica on the song. Look for Stevie to come in around the 1:47 mark, and trading solos with Humphrey throughout the rest of the song.
Another artist that Humphrey worked with on this album is multi-instrumentalist Marcus Miller. Though best known as a bass player, Miller can also play clarinet and keyboards, and has worked with Sanborn as well as Luther Vandross, Eric Clapton and Miles Davis, to name just a few of the many people he’s worked with during his career. At the time of this album, Miller was nineteen years old and was just beginning to make inroads in the music business. He had been playing in clubs in his native New York for a few years before playing on this album. He would also begin an association with keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith around the time of this release. He also became a good songwriter as well, having written “Sunset Burgundy” for Humphrey as well as playing bass on the track.
After her last Epic album, The Good Life, Humphrey began to concentrate on the business side of the industry. She formed her own company, Bobbi Humphrey Music, which helped steer new talent to Warner Brothers Records. Her most famous discovery was R&B singer Tevin Campbell, who sold several million records during the 1990s, and was also featured on Quincy Jones’ Back On The Block Album. She also formed her own record label and released an album entitled Passion Flute in 1994. While she hasn’t made any new music recently, her music from her 70s output lives on in the hearts and minds of many.
I hope you enjoy these songs from Ms. Humphrey, and as always, thanks for reading and listening.