Listening to Curtis Fuller

I don’t listen to much ‘mainstream’ jazz these days; my CD collection is shot through with a more-than-liberal streak of albums on Blue Note and Prestige and Impulse, but they don’t see the light of day too often.  Hard to say why that should be; after all for any  lover of what used to be called ‘modern jazz’ , the works of Coltrane, Monk, Miles, Bill Evans, Mingus etc are fundamental ‘texts’. 

 Even so, listening to these ‘classics’ is akin to eating in a favourite restaurant where the food is good but the menu remains unchanged.  You know it’s solid stuff,  but somehow that new Venezuelan/Uzbekistani brasserie round the corner is just a little bit more tempting….so it is that I have found myself drifting away from the predictable horns + rhythm section set-ups of  so much small group jazz from the late 1950’s and 1960’s towards more contemporary (and often European) stylings, where trumpeters are just as likely to be playing alongside tabla players, electronics wizards, Hardanger fiddles and kora players.  For modern musicians working in and around jazz, the world, to quote Arthur Daley, is their lobster. 

In a (silent) way, fracturing the orthodoxies of the post-bop era was one of the things that Miles Davis was looking for when he abandoned the song-based forms of his 1960’s acoustic quintets and plunged headlong into those cavernous electric landscapes of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  Multiple electric keyboards, tablas, sitars and jagged electric guitars were all part of the new palette that Miles was using to create a music that was jazz, Jim; just not as we knew it.

So, exploring a forgotten cache of Curtis Fuller recordings on my hard drive was a kind of archaeological endeavour for me.  I have grown to love the trombone as an instrument; it has a gruff warmth that I find appealing and Curtis Fuller – still alive and kicking, though in his late 70’s now – was always a thoughtful practitioner of the trombonist’s arts.  A native of Detroit, he emerged in the mid-50’s flowering of Detroit talent that also brought us the likes of  Yusef Lateef, Barry Harris and Donald Byrd.  After a stint in the US Army (working in an Army band led by Cannonball Adderley) he returned to Detroit to work in Lateef’s band, via which route he arrived in New York in 1957. Once there, he sat in with Miles Davis and  one of his first recording sessions was the one for which he’s probably best known, playing with Lee Morgan, Kenny Drew, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones on John Coltrane’s seminal 1957 ‘Blue Train’ album.  Fuller’s talent was certainly in demand; after only 8 months in New York, he’d made six albums as a leader and appeared on 15 others.

Curtis Fuller (L) with Lee Morgan & John Coltrane (R), 1957 ‘Blue Train’ sessions

The trombone, apart from being fiendishly difficult to master, was usually seen as a ‘fringe’ instrument in post-1945 jazz.  There were serious practitioners like Lawrence Brown, ‘Slide’ Hampton and J.J. Johnson, but the trombone was still seen – like the flute – as being a slightly exotic addition to the abiding sax/trumpet hegemony of the era.  Apart from his innate talent, that’s probably one reason why Fuller was in such demand – the streets were awash with saxophonists and trumpeters, but trombonists were less common.  Stylistically, Fuller is well within the mainstream; the albums he made for Savoy, Blue Note and (later on) Impulse saw  him working with a wide range of performers from Jimmy Smith and Bud Powell to Benny Golson and Freddie Hubbard.  The four solo albums he made for Blue Note between 1957 and 1959 (collected as a now-out-of-print Mosaic box set) probably represent his most impressive work. and  are the most rewarding of the batch I’m listening to.  They feature a good cross-section of the Blue Note ‘repertory’ at that time – Hank Mobley, Sonny Clark, Paul Chambers, Elvin Jones and the like.  Also good is the 1962 album Curtis made for Impulse, ‘Soul Trombone & the Jazz Clan’  – terrible name, but a good record, featuring Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Cobb and Cedar Walton.

By then, Curtis had joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, staying with them until 1965, then freelancing for the rest of the 60’s, playing with ex-Army ‘roomie’ Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter among others.  As the trombone has a more natural affinity with ‘big band’ jazz, it was perhaps inevitable that Fuller would gravitate towards larger ensembles where he could get regular work.  Thus by the late 1960’s, he had done a brief stint with Duke Ellington and also subsequently worked at greater length in Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie’s bands. 

Curtis Fuller with the Jazz Messengers at the Apollo in Harlem, 1962

From the late 1970’s, he also became involved with Dutch ‘retro’ label, Timeless.  Right now, I’m listening to ‘Four on the outside’, recorded for Timeless in 1978 alongside baritone sax player Pepper Adams.  The music is still rooted within that small group/post-bop tradition, but introduces newer players like pianist James Williams and bassist Dennis Irwin, who give things a slightly more ‘contemporary’ feel.  From the early 1980’s, Timeless founder Wim Wigt put together ‘The Timeless All-Stars’ , an all-star post-bop band that initially featured  Fuller with the likes of Bobby Hutcherson and Harold Land, as well as pianist Cedar Walton.  Scanning the horizons of that era for other prominent trombonists is a task that doesn’t take long – the likes of Albert Mangelsdorff Roswell Rudd and Grachan Moncur III were working in free jazz circles,  Eje Thelin was largely unknown outside Sweden, whilst Julian Priester had produced a couple of extraordinary albums for ECM, but that was about it. 

Since then, trombonists in jazz have almost become an endangered species, In the UK, Malcolm Griffiths and Annie Whitehead have achieved some prominence, but by far and away the doyen  of modern trombonists is Robin Eubanks, probably best-known for his lengthy tenure in Dave Holland’s bands since the 90’s, but also a bandleader in his own right.  Listening to Eubanks, the connection with Curtis Fuller is immediately apparent, but Robin Eubanks is a child of the post-war baby boom and has soaked up many other influences besides Fuller, J.J.Johnson and the like; his EB3 band use electronics and are just as likely to be inspired by James Brown as  they are by Lawrence Brown.

Latter-day Curtis Fuller

Curtis Fuller, meanwhile just keeps rollin’ along; in 1993, there was a Japanese-inspired reunion of sorts (‘Bluesette 2′) between Fuller and Benny Golson, reprising their 1959 ‘Jazztet’ liaison that produced the ‘Bluesette‘ album for Savoy. With a solid rhythm section comprising Tommy Flanagan, Ray Drummond and Al Harewood, Golson & Fuller reprise some of the original ‘Bluesette’ material and introduce some new, but like-minded tunes.  The calibre of the playing is fine, but this is really one of those ‘Jazz in Aspic’ retro projects that merely evoke echoes of an era that is long gone.  Some people will find that reassuring, whilst restless souls like myself move on in search of something that presages the future rather than merely reconfiguring former glories…..

…which is where I came in, really.  What is the value of a 1993 jazz  album (no matter how professionally-performed) that belongs, stylistically, to the late 1950’s? In another context, the enthusiasm for rock ‘tribute’ bands like The Australian Pink Floyd Show or The Bootleg Beatles is something I have always found a tad depressing.  A friend of mine has even attended an outdoor festival in Wales where the bill for the entire weekend is made up of ‘cover bands’.  Go figure….

Whilst the very existence of such bands is a testament to the power and reach of the originals, it seems rather sad that imitation rather than innovation has become the order of business these days.  Even the recent trend for rock bands to play ‘classic albums’ in their entirety on stage has worn a bit thin since Brian Wilson and Arthur Lee kicked things off a few years back.  I see that four of the original members of Roxy Music are touring shortly, playing their 1973 masterpiece ‘For your pleasure’ in its entirety.  One of the striking things about Roxy Music in their original incarnation was the way that Bryan Ferry, in his mid-20’s, managed to project the world-weariness and ennui of a crooner in his mid-60’s.  Now that Ferry is a crooner in his 60’s, what are we to think?  Perhaps we’re not supposed to think at all….

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