Trombone virtuoso Curtis Fuller exemplifies the typical working jazz musician today. Unknown to many, he nonetheless has kept plugging away at his craft, year after year, decade after decade. You may never have heard of him, but you can bet your last dollar that your favorite jazz musician has.
Curtis Fuller was born in Detroit, Michigan on December 15, 1934. He first became interested in piano when his sister took lessons. But after seeing J. J. Johnson perform with Illinois Jacquet’s band, he dropped piano for the trombone.
After he was out of high school Fuller spent some time in the Army where he played with Cannonball Adderley in the Army Band. After his Army service was complete he returned to Detroit and, eventually, to New York. In New York, he quickly became a popular studio musician. In 1955, he recorded his first album as a leader, “Transition.”
Fuller was a member of both Benny Golson and Art Farmer’s Jazztet and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Others with whom he worked were Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Cedar Walton, Kai Winding, Stanley Clarke, to name a few.
In 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) honored Fuller with their NEA Jazz Master Award. (See the link to the NEA web site at the end of this article. Just don’t forget to come back!)
The Curtis Fuller album I want to tell you about this week is of a recent vintage, the 2005 release “Keep It Simple.”
The personnel for this one are:
“Keep It Simple” consists of eleven songs, four of which Fuller wrote. Track 1 is all of four seconds long and is Fuller telling everyone to “Keep it simple, okay?”
The guys then jump into one of Fuller’s originals, “The Court.” This nicely lively song moves along at a good pace after drummer Wise’s opening gives way to Fuller. Pianist Carn gets a nice little solo about a minute and a half in, and does quite well with the short time he’s allotted.
“The Court” is a great song, and these guys do a good job with it. My only quibble is that instead of giving it a proper ending, the producers resort to the artificial trick of just turning the gain down slowly, fading the song into nothing. C’mon! If you are going to give us a song, take the time to do it right and end it! Sheesh. J
Track 2 is another Fuller composition, “Maze.” Fuller and Jackson do a brief horn duet before Fuller steps back and lets Jackson take the lead with his tenor. Fuller takes the lead again briefly at about the three minute mark and then hands it off to Carn. Unlike in “The Court,” the pianist is given time to stretch his legs on this one and gives us a nice little run. Then both horns return and we have everyone taking it out. (And yes, this is another “ride off into the sunset” ending without an ending. Arrrgh.)
The Bobby Troupe/Neal Hefti standard “Girl Talk” is up next. This one is somewhat mellower than the first two and makes a nice change of pace. We even are treated to a nice solo from bassist Jordan, something that has been missing from the first two songs.
The next song, “A La Mode,” is another of Fuller’s, and as you might expect by now it moves along at a brisk pace, driven by Jordan and Wise on bass and drums respectively.
Time is running short on me so I’m going to jump ahead to “Western Sunrise.” Pianist Doug Carn wrote this one. I never heard of Carn prior to researching this album. The man has had quite a career, including a 1970’s recording session with Earth, Wind and Fire.
Getting back to the music at hand, “Western Sunrise” moves along nicely. As you might expect for a song written by a pianist, the main instrument here is Carn on his piano and it is superb! This one has a subtle intensity that makes it hard to resist.
“Arabia” is the name of the fourth Fuller-penned song on the album. This one opens with both horns complementing each other while the rest of the band groves on. Then Jackson takes the lead for a time, followed by Jordan on his bass until Fuller returns to carry it on to the apparently inevitable “Indiana Jones riding off into the sunset” fade-out ending.
Skipping ahead again, we land on the closing song, the classic “It’s You Or No One” from the prolific songwriting team of Jule Styne and Sammy Kahn. If ever a song could be said to epitomize feeling happy, this is the one, which is probably why it’s been a perennial favorite of jazz musicians and audiences alike for decades. The guys do a predictably excellent job, and hey, it even has a proper ending. 🙂
You know what I’m going to say, but I have to say it anyway. “Keep It Simple” from Curtis Fuller would make an outstanding addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
To find out more about Curtis Fuller and his music, there is a nice bio of him on The Hard Bop Homepage.
In November of 2011, Fuller appeared in concert at Harvard University. One Mattie Kahn wrote an appreciative review of that date, which you can read here. (There are some nice photos, too.)
A fairly extensive discography of Fuller’s recorded work can be found on Jazzdisco.org.
Ron Wynn has penned a nice bio of Fuller for the allmusic.com web site.
And last but certainly not least, the NEA JazzMasters web site has a bio of him along with audio clips and an extensive interview.
Thanks for reading this.
Wood Village, Oregon
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