Curtis Fuller: Up Jumped Spring

[4 August 2004]

By Robert R. Calder


After a the first 45 years of a long career and the loss of one lung to cancer surgery, Curtis Fuller sounds different from the young trombonist whose reputation Blue Note didn’t sheerly foster when they put him in a studio quartet with Bud Powell. There was a considerable difference between the still-young giant and the not-yet-full-grown one.

Fuller is a still a giant. A friend of mine (until he stopped talking to me) remembered for years and may still remember the magnificent spectacle of Fuller with plunger mute. I must point out an example. Fuller was at the time in the Count Basie band, Basie’s name and that of Ella Fitzgerald having drawn the large concert hall audience. It seems that a mass public has always demanded of “jazz”—whatever it means by “jazz”—that it render up big names and that the artistic proficiency behind these names not offend against certain standards of “taste” whether cheapness, vulgarity, sheer decibels, cosy middlebrowness or whatever. In those nouveau riche terms Fuller was just staff, I suppose. His own lack of adequate wider reputation (though he has recorded amply, and the last musician to talk about him to me was in awe) is probably a consequence of mechanical mind-habits (but on a more humane scale) like those which foster mass oblivion to all but BIG NAMES.

In contrast to vices of parochialism and provincialism (both words have been spun round to pseudopositives in recent years, not least to make the sometimes far-too-fishy look big by exalting the small ponds they predate in), it is true that in jazz there always have been the untravelled and often unrecorded of frontline quality. Go hear a touring single in a non-big-city European venue and you may be amazed at what size of talent has been brought in from, say Freiburg am Breisgau.

Here in Chicago the title track of this CD opens with the seasoned fingering of Karl Montzka of the lovely timing, who wastes nobody’s time with excess of notes. In comes Fuller, with a big, euphonium sort of sound presumably devised to match consequences of past problems. Recommended to young players who might like to consider being “In a Mellow Tone” (without my contrived way of naming another excellent performance here), it is a lovely way of playing trombone, all flow.

Fuller’s rapid-note work is more remarkable only technically, and as creative unpredictability, than the upspringing phrasing which brings the best out of Freddie Hubbard’s composition. He plays with remarkable tenderness on the ballad “God Bless the Child”, to which the pianist (currently with a longstanding gig as organist, I gather) contributes with ideal sensitivity.

The title track also demonstrates what a magnificent player of muted trumpet Brad Goode can be, a player who recalls such past masters as Harry Edison and Howard McGhee. He’s nearer the latter on a “Bags’ Groove” which demonstrates Fuller’s capacities in the J.J. Johnson bop bag. Fuller was always a warmer softer-toned player than Johnson, too subtly individual for some ears, it seems, to hear what he had developed, growing up in Detroit. His individual way of playing is even a kind of historical commentary, sine he has been able to fit both within an older swing context and in settings which remain downright avant-garde—not as pointing to any general future, but being a big challenge to any ears.

On Coltrane’s “Equinox” here, Fuller demonstrates his new access to the lower resonances of the trombone, and the broad-toned punching style which he has also further developed.

“I’m Old Fashioned” is a piano trio performance, with Karl Montzka especially satisfying in that he doesn’t need to draw a map in order to get from point A to the real point of ballad playing: musicianship. I’m less happy with the trumpeter’s open sound on “Alone Together”, but Fuller has a really upbeat solo. I’ve not heard his recordings on Steeplechase with von Freeman and Ira Sullivan (other Chicagoans—Goode lives and teaches not too far from the city), but on open horn here he may be trying to match Fuller’s broader handsomely blurry-edged attack, which has remarkable expressive range after the set’s one vocal (Jacey Falk, a light-voiced emulator of the neglected Rushing-Turner-Witherspoon art of blues shouting). Goode follows the boss there with a splendid muted solo.

He isn’t just at his best muted—he’s quite marvellous. “Star Eyes” is a very satisfying closer, with Goode tightly muted and melodious, and Fuller happy with the deepest wisdom. Stewart Miller follows the pianist’s as ever fussiness-free piano solo with a sunny bass solo (no contradiction on this tune, its name notwithstanding). On four of the eleven titles Larry Gray plays bass, and on a couple of those shows his soloing ability with the bow. Tim Davis is the very good drummer, taking up as he should some cues from the bassist on a well-measured solo which gives Curtis Fuller the cue to a nice round-up of the whole set. Listeners who go back to the beginning will be reminded that I have not mentioned Fuller’s splendidly sustained solo on the opening “Canteloupe Island”—or for that matter Goode’s excellent open trumpet solo full of half-valving and little sly phrases, or the relaxed assurance of Larry Gray’s bass solo encapsulating the general feel of this restorative set.

Play it again.

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