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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Steve Arloff, Nick Barnard, Pierre Giroux, Don Mather, James Poore, Glyn Pursglove, George Stacy, Bert Thompson, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf



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TED CURSON

Four Classic Albums

Avid AMSC 1139

 

 

CD1 [79:59]

Plenty of Horn

Caravan

Nosruc Waltz**

The Things We Did Last Summer*

Dem’s Blues**

Ahma (See Ya)+

Flatted Fifth

Bali-H’ai*

Antibes+

Mr. Teddy**

Ted Curson (trumpet, piccolo trumpet)

Bill Barron (tenor sax

Kenny Drew (piano)

Jimmy Garrison (bass)

Roy Haynes (drums)

Eric Dolphy (flute)*

Danny Richmond (drums)**

Pete LaRoca (drums)+

Recorded NYC, April 1961

Fire Down Below

Fire Down Below*

The Very Young

Baby Has Gone Bye Bye*

Show Me*

Falling in Love With Love*

Only Forever

Ted Curson (trumpet)

Gildo Mahones (piano)

George Tucker (bass)

Roy Haynes (drums)

Montego Joe (congas)*

Recorded Englewood Cliffs N.J., December 10 1962

The Tenor Stylings Of Bill Barron

Blast Off

CD2 [77:40]

Ode to an Earth Girl

Fox Hunt

Oriental Impression

Back Lash

Nebulae

Bill Barron (tenor sax)

Ted Curson (trumpet)

Kenny Barron (piano)

Jimmy Garrison (bass)

Frankie Dunlop (drums)

Recorded Newark N.J., February 21 1961

Live at La Tete de L’Art

Cracklin’ Bread

Ted’s Tempo

Playhouse March

Straight Ice

Quicksand

Ted Curson (trumpet, piccolo trumpet)

Al Doctor (alto sax)

Maury Kaye (piano)

Charles Biddle [name given as Biddles in CD booklet] (bass)

Charles Duncan (drums)

Recorded Montreal, 1962


When I first heard recordings of Ted Curson, as a sixth-former and nascent jazz-fan, I was immediately struck and attracted by his playing – adventurous yet wholly accessible, experimental but deeply rooted in the jazz tradition, with a brassy sound and great agility. Over the years since then I have come to the conclusion that my first impressions were (for once!) correct. I think Curson has been somewhat neglected and underrated, but I hope this typical Avid reissue will get him at least some of the attention he deserves.

Curson’s most natural, most truly personal idiom sits more or less astride the line between late hard bop and free jazz and one reason for his being underrated was perhaps the sense that he never fully settled in either camp. He was born (in 1935) and brought up in Philadelphia, one of the most fruitful seedbeds of modern jazz; Curson played the trumpet from the age of 10; in Philadelphia his friends (and neighbours) included the Heath brothers (Jimmy, Percy and Al) – one of the great jazz families. He attended Mastbaum High School (where his predecessors included John Coltrane and Lee Morgan). As a teenager he led a group which included pianist Bobby Timmons, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Al Heath and also undertook formal studies at the Granhoff School of Music, former students of which included Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. Other Philadelphian musicians, of a similar generation to Curson, included Lee Morgan, Benny Golson and McCoy Tyner. In 1956 he moved to New York (on the advice of Miles Davis, according to some accounts). There he worked with Red Garland, Mal Waldron, Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones amongst others. In 1959 he worked and recorded (Love for Sale) with Cecil Taylor. In 1960 he was playing and recording with various groups led by Charles Mingus (appearing on albums such as Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus and Mingus at Antibes). His first opportunity to record a session under his own name came with Plenty of Horn, recorded in April 1961. Between 1960 and 1965 Curson frequently played in a quintet, sharing the frontline with fellow Philadelphian Bill Barron (older – but less widely known - brother of pianist Kenny Barron). The group sometimes appeared (and recorded) under Curson’s name, sometimes under Barron’s. Barron joins Curson on the trumpeter’s Plenty of Horn and Curson joins Barron on the saxophonist’s The Tenor Stylings of Bill Barron. The two were apt and natural partners, since they occupied much the same space, stylistically speaking.

Plenty of Horn begins with a fine reading of ‘Caravan’, in which Curson sounds, at some points, like an updated Rex Stewart, and in which his fragmented lines articulate perfectly to the rhythms of the composition. Roy Haynes’ work at the drums is both fierce and controlled. Curson wrote and /or arranged all the music on his first album (and if his originals aren’t especially memorable, his arrangements are intelligent and stimulating), on which he is ably supported by some excellent musicians, notably Eric Dolphy on Bali-H’ai, as well as Kenny Drew and Jimmy Garrison throughout. Bill Barron plays some interesting solos, sounding, at times, like a cross between Sonny Rollins and Hank Mobley. This a record which surely ranks high amongst debut sessions of its time and certainly more than merits its reissue here.

As a quartet recording Fire Down Below gives Curson more solo space and leaves him more ‘exposed’. Interestingly his work here is less adventurous than that on his first album, this second being rather more ‘inside’ than ‘outside’; yet Curson still creates an individual idiom within the larger trumpet language forged by figures such as Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown and Miles Davis. His melodic ballad playing is especially attractive (onThe Very Young and Only Forever). The album also give the listener the chance to hear, as both soloist (he is particularly good on Baby Has Gone Bye Bye) and accompanist, the interesting but relatively little recorded pianist Gildo Mahones. Roy Haynes’ contribution at the drums is again outstanding; he forms a fine rhythm section with bassist George Tucker. It is hard, though, to persuade oneself that the addition of a conga player, in the person of Montego Joe, was either necessary or very useful.

The Tenor Stylings of Bill Barron is very much the tenorist’s album, all six tracks being originals by Barron, but Curson gets plenty of solo space too. On the opener, Blast Off, the trumpeter is at his most declamatory, with a bright, shining tone and plenty of ideas. Ode to an Earth Girl is an odd piece, based on a very limited and repetitive harmonic pattern, over which Curson improvises with more success than the tune’s composer, exploiting both top and bottom registers of his instrument to good effect. On Nebulae there is some good interplay between the two horns. All in all this an album which, like a number of the Baron-Curson collaborations, is a little frustrating, as if neither player quite has the confidence to develop the possibilities which they obviously found tempting.

There is not much evidence of such temptations, or of the desire for the kinds of freedom so controversial in the 1960s, when one turns to the fourth album here, Live at La Tete de L’Art, the reference being to a club in Montreal. This sounds like a radio broadcast, and has Curson playing with a pick-up band of relatively little-known Canadian musicians. I know only two of them: pianist Maury Kaye (born in Montreal in 1932), was a well-established pianist and composer on the music scene in his native city. He studied at the Conservatoire in Quebec, before working extensively in Montreal and in Canada more widely. He regularly accompanied touring singers and musicians, including Tony Bennett, Pearl Bailey, Mel Tormé and Pepper Adams. Bassist Charles Biddle was actually born in Philadelphia, like Ted Curson (perhaps it was this Philadelphian connection that brought Curson to Montreal as a solist) and first came to Montreal, when touring with a band led by Vernon Isaacs. He settled in Montreal and played at various times with Lionel Hampton, Oscar Peterson and even Charlie Parker. He was part of a trio with Canadian pianist Oliver Jones for a number of years. He also promoted jazz events and venues in the city. It is odd that none of the five musicians has an entry in the Canadian Jazz Archives Online. They are competent bop musicians, especially Kaye; but they don’t seem to be able, or willing, to extend the boundaries of that style in the way that Curson did. There is, thus, an awkward division between Curson and the rhythm section, who do little or nothing to stimulate (or respond to) his playing, especially when improvising. Bassist Charles Biddle, for example, sounds much less comfortable here than he does on a later recording with pianist Oliver Jones, a much less ‘experimental’ musician (Oliver Jones, Live at Biddles Jazz and Ribs, issued on Justin Time). Drummer Charles Duncan, in particular, is stuck in a rhythmic conception at odds with Curson’s language on trumpet, and comes off badly by comparison with the work of drummers such as Roy Haynes, Frank Dunlop and Danny Richmond, heard elsewhere on these discs (but then, in fairness to Duncan, these are rather high standards!). Given the inhibitions that Curson seems to have felt in this musical company, his playing is rather less adventurous than usual. The result is an interesting recording; not one at all essential in Curson’s recorded legacy, but worth having for those who (like me) find the trumpeter an interesting figure. Some of Curson’s best playing in the session can be heard on Straight Ice, where he seems effectively to ignore the other musicians on the stand with him. Beyond Curson, the best moments on the album come from Maury Kaye on Quicksand, though his pure bop solo is really rather at odds with Curson’s tune.

For Curson, a natural and interesting point of comparison is with a trumpet contemporary who also played with Dolphy – Booker Little. Little was three years younger than Curson and was another liminal figure who had a foot in both hard bop and ‘free’ camps. Quite what path he would have followed we shall never know, since he sadly died in 1961, aged only 23. Curson was spared an early death, but in his case too, much of the early potential remained unfulfilled, for other reasons. In the few years following the making of the albums reissued in this collection he made some impressive albums under his own name – notably Tears for Dolphy in 1964 and The New Thing & The Blue Thing in 1965 (Bill Barron appeared on both albums); a superb quartet session (The Urge) with tenorist Booker Ervin, bassist Jimmy Woode and drummer Edgar Bateman in 1966; he also made important contributions to Archie Shepp’s Fire Music (recorded in 1965). The Urge was recorded in the Netherlands, and from the mid-sixties onwards Curson spent much time in Europe – in Paris, Poland, Copenhagen, in Switzerland (he spent some time in the orchestra of the Schauspielhaus in Zurich) and in Finland (in 1966 he played at the first Pori jazz Festival in that country and returned annually thereafter. His popularity and respect in Finland were such that in 2007 he was invited by the country’s president to play at Finland’s Independence Day Ball!). When in the USA, Curson played gigs and made occasional recordings, as well as teaching at the University of California in Los Angeles and at the university of Vermont. But he was no longer at the centre of jazz developments and his own playing didn’t really develop to fulfil its early promise.

Curson’s last recording, so far as I know, was made in Paris and has a fittingly retrospective quality to it, being a live recording (made in October 2008) with a six-piece band (including tenor player Ricky Ford) and entitled Ted Curson Plays the Music of Charles Mingus (issued on a label called ‘Elabeth’). In the last few years of his life Curson was based at Montclair in New Jersey, still playing well into his seventies. He died of a heart attack in Montclair on November 4, 2012.

An obituary in the New York Times said of Curson that he “moved fluidly between soulful postbop and volatile free jazz”. Quite. Had his life and career followed a different trajectory Curson might have been a leader of what has become known as freebop. Certainly he was a precursor of that style. One can definitely hear echoes of Curson in, for example, the work of Malachi Thompson, an important trumpeter in that later idiom, who formed his “Freebop Band” in 1978. Those who don’t already know Curson’s work are urged to explore it on this 2-CD set - and elsewhere.

Glyn Pursglove



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