Jazz architect

Sep 2, 1998 at 12:00 am
FACE="Helvetica">Quick, name three jazz trombonists. OK, hold that thought while you consider this: If you are a bebop-based trombonist and you're very, very good, chances are that you're still listed behind J.J. Johnson. Of the modern trombonists, Johnson got there first. Fine, so you're going to be Larry Doby behind J.J.'s Jackie Robinson.

Curtis Fuller understands this. "J.J. gave me the ball," Fuller was quoted as saying in the liner notes to his Curtis Fuller All-Star Sextets LP a couple of decades ago, "and I'm still trying to develop it. I can play as fast as a trumpet player; I'm the only trombone player that ever played with John Coltrane; I'm the only one that did a quartet date with Bud Powell ..." Fuller has also met the Queen of England, had Joe Henderson as a roommate and has deep Motor City roots. He attended Dwyer Elementary on Detroit's north end, went to Northern High School, where he began trombone studies in his senior year, and studied at the Art Center Music School. He spent his formative musical years with a bumper crop of fellow Detroit musicians which included Kenny Burrell, Yusef Lateef, altoist Sonny Red, Hugh Lawson and Barry Harris.

So how come a bunch of you didn't have Curtis Fuller on your list, or couldn't even come up with a list? For one thing, consider that the trombone is not everyone's favorite instrument any damned way. Trumpets, tenors and maybe alto saxophones and their players tend to be more the glib, type-A personality players. They are the jazz frontmen, the spokesmen and cleanup hitters of the group.

Since the days of Dixieland (even then they had to sit on the back of the wagon), trombone players have tended to be perceived as moderates. A lot of pucker and pluck, perhaps, but still likely to be the poster children for jazz neglect, and not the type the girls go home with. Trombonists can have just as much game, heart and attitude -- it's just that the 'bone seems more mellow than pace-setting.

And it's a shame. Being a jazz musician is such a Sisyphean pursuit anyway; after all, what's the best you can hope for? Recognition by an extremely small circle of outsiders and airplay on a weak-signal college station? Nevertheless, if you bust your butt and do the right thing, you want your justly deserved deserts in terms of name recognition.

Especially if you, like Curtis Fuller, have shared bandstands with Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Maynard Ferguson, Quincy Jones, Art Blakey, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Woody Shaw and Lester Young, and you still don't make everybody's all-star trombonist top three.

Fuller deserves far better. His style is, without question, old school-classical jazz. He's lyrical and sensitive on ballads, and has a blazing, saxophone-like fire on up-tempo tunes. Want to experience an example of smooth jazz before smooth became a fusion-come-on concept? Listen to a ballad on one of the albums under Fuller's name including: The Curtis Fuller Jazztet, Images of Curtis Fuller on Savoy, or New Trombone on Original Jazz Classics. His is a round, lustful tone, reassuring and pleasing in the manner of Ben Webster. For burners, check Curtis Fuller All-Star Sextets on Savoy, with Benny Golson and Lee Morgan.

His solos proceed by logic and reason, the same logic and reason you will sense in his conception of an album, the assembling of a group, the selection of tunes and the setting of tempos. In each instance, there is an overall ease that comes from his masterful facility of horn and basic concepts. His approach and sound are without compromise, and are fueled by the confidence of the self-possessed.

In his quest to work with the materials given him by J.J. Johnson, Fuller has built the proverbial better mousetrap. But the world today has an insatiable need (or is it greed?) for the flash and dazzle of hyphenated sales pitches prefaced with some variation of "neo." So, it either ignores or is not exposed to Fuller's exquisitely and classically turned examples of craftsmanship.

Fuller has done everything a jazz musician can possibly do while remaining true to the music and himself. "I know what I've done," he said as part of the notes quoted above. If you don't already know, you should. And if you do, you know that witnessing a Curtis Fuller performance is like a trip to the source of a sphinx-like riddle. There's joy in the journey and awe at the mystery of the mastery.

Fuller shares leadership-headliner duties with fellow Detroiter and contemporary Louis Hayes, a skilled drummer with an equally impressive pedigree and resume. Bill Harris is both a poet and playwright Bill Harris' latest book is CODA & RIFFS (two plays) from Broadside Press, Detroit.E-mail him at [email protected]