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One Track Mind: Curtis Fuller - "Alamode" (2010)

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By Pico

A guy who has helped to pioneer a fluid yet supple sound for the trombone, participated in so many classic records and performed as a member of so many prominent jazz ensembles should be a first ballot entry into the jazz Hall of Fame, if such a thing were to exist. But the only trombonist to ever appear on any records by John Coltrane, Jimmy Smith and Bud Powell is somehow missed in the conversation sometimes when the topic is about jazz's most important trombone players after the Swing Era.

Much like Charles Lloyd, Curtus Fuller is the living legend hidden in plain sight.

These days, he's perhaps a little less hidden since the June 15 release of his 1 studio disc/1 live disc 2-fer I Will Tell Her. Recently, this record has not only been racking up critical acclaim, but reached #1 on the jazz radio charts. It's a record that is hard to find fault with, as Fuller and his Denver-based sextet nail mostly Fuller's own tunes and a few covers by Billy Eckstine, Kenny Dorham and Sonny Rollins in the finest hard bop tradition that Fuller was present for in its formative years. And there's no mistaking that the big warm trombone you hear on this record is the same one that adorned Blue Trane way back in 1957.

There's many standout tracks, one of them being the beautiful ballad Fuller “I Will Tell Her" wrote over forty years ago but never recorded until now. But his even-older tune “Alamode" is pretty noteworthy, too. I remember that being the sizzlin' lead-off track on Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' Impulse release from 1961. Fuller, who has also written has share of good songs over the years, had just begun his four year stint in Blakey's band at the time, and he shared the front line with Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter. Bobby Timmons manned the piano and Jymie Merritt was on bass. This band was unstoppable, and Blakey played the three note punctuation in “Alamode"'s chorus in tandem with Timmons, dropping many of his trademark bombs all over the song.

The 2010 version of this song has Fuller playing alongside his close friend Keith Oxman (tenor sax) and Al Hood (trumpet), along with Chip Stephens (piano), Ken Walker (bass) and Todd Reid (drums). Other than playing it at a slower tempo, these cats don't fiddle greatly with the original formula. Nonetheless, it's a fine way to compare Fuller's playing now versus back then because although “Alamode" has a great, groovy theme, this is a song that's built for blowing. When Fuller's time comes (after the sax solo, instead after both the sax and trumpet solos in the Blakey version), he plays with a little less brashness but is also winding through a wider variety of notes and playing them in a nuanced, relaxed manner. The other guys acquit themselves pretty well, too, and the band has a good rapport. Reid maintains that steady beat and doesn't take chances with it like Fuller's old boss relished doing, but it's really unfair to compare Reid to a giant like Blakey.

I'm glad Fuller chose to take “Alamode" out of the chest and put it “on wax" again. It's always nice to be reminded of a living legend of the 50s and 60s jazz in our midst and still doing the things that made him a legend to begin with.

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