“Red Clay” is one of those rare albums that suggest they’re going to be exceptional right from their first few notes. Here, the title track opens on the quintet (whose ranks include Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Joe Henderson) warming up with a blast of barely-controlled chaos before working themselves into the melody proper. It’s an astounding piece, maybe halfway between the burbling near-ambient loops of “In A Silent Way” and the freer forms of McCoy Tyner’s “Sahara”. Hancock’s electric piano work is mellow yet driving, Ron Carter’s basslines practically bubble and Hubbard carves out sleazy trumpet blues on top. An awesome dozen minutes.


The remainder of the album is almost doomed to splutter in the wake of such a volcanic opening, but it’s to “Red Clay”’s credit that it doesn’t quite. “Delphia” moves imperceptibly from flute-fluttered gentility to blues shouting and back again, and “The Intrepid Fox” takes an electrified, sped-up “So What” groove and generously ladles melodic craziness over it, Hubbard and Henderson doubling up on its long, flowing motif.


If “Red Clay” is jazz rock it exists at the unforced, natural end of that particular genre marriage, without the awkwardness, abrasiveness or grandstanding that can sometimes mar it. It’s an astonishing discovery that I wholeheartedly recommend.


I strongly suspect the currently available vinyl issue to have originated from the shady Scorpio concern, if cross-referencing the style of inner sleeve and deadwax inscriptions with my known Scorpio pressings is any kind of reliable guide. If so, it confounds my modest expectations by sounding absolutely phenomenal. It does, however, omit the bonus tracks found on some CD pressings, a cover of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” and a live take of the title track, which sound like they might be more than entertaining.