By Devon Wendell
When it comes to purchasing an essential jazz recording, one often only has to look at the group of musicians listed on that specific record sleeve to know that the music is going to be incredible. That’s one of the great joys of being obsessed with this music; looking for that perfect combination of players and possibly finding a rare gem you’ve never heard.
When I found a vinyl copy of Imagination by The Curtis Fuller Sextette in the bins of a tiny record shop in Greenwich Village while I was a young and ambitious college student, I knew I was about to experience some timeless music. When you take trombone genius Curtis Fuller and place him together with Benny Golson, tenor sax, Thad Jones, trumpet, McCoy Tyner, piano, Jimmy Garrison, bass, and Dave Bailey on drums, how could it be anything less than absolutely burning?
The Curtis Fuller Sextette’s Imagination was recorded for Savoy Records on December, 17, 1959. The album title is the perfect description of Fuller’s trombone style. By this time, Fuller was the most creative and imaginative trombonist to emerge from the hard-bop era.
Fuller picked up where J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, and Jimmy Cleveland left off. Fuller was a prolific player. He made some genre defining albums in the ‘50s and ‘60s with John Coltrane, Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Bud Powell, Woody Shaw, and Sonny Clark.
In 1959 Fuller formed his much acclaimed group, The Jazztet. Their debut album on Savoy features Fuller along with Benny Golson, Lee Morgan, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Charles Persip.
Fuller began his long and fruitful relationship with tenor saxophonist Benny Golson in 1958 when Golson recorded his first recording as a band leader, The Other Side Of Benny Golson for Riverside. Very few artists of that era played as perfectly together and made such memorable music as Fuller and Golson did.
Imagination is a prime example of that incredible chemistry. The music on this album is primarily hard-bop although it hearkens back to the bebop days, especially on Fuller’s up-tempo original, “Bang Bang.” This not only showcases one of Fuller’s finest solos but it is one of the most stellar and brilliant trombone improvisations ever recorded. Fuller soars. His solo reminds me of the fast, fleet fingered virtuosity of Dizzy Gillespie. This is what Diz would have sounded like if he played the trombone. Benny Golson swings so hard and aggressively. During this period, I place him right up there with John Coltrane, Clifford Jordan, Wayne Shorter and Booker Ervin as one of the most intriguingly original and exciting tenor saxophonists on the scene. Golson’s brief but unforgettable stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers that same year helped to produce the much heralded Moanin‘ album.
And then you have the incomparable and legendary Thad Jones whose lyricism and rhythmic brilliance made any musicians he ever played with cook harder than ever. That’s certainly the case on the modal flavored Fuller original “Kachin,” and the title track, a magically tender ballad written by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen. Fuller’s playing on this ballad is a precursor to the unparalleled trombone ballad style of Bill Watrous. Fuller’s sense of melody and harmony are impeccable. McCoy Tyner was already a soulful and explorative soloist and accompanist. This was before Tyner joined Coltrane’s band a year later. This is the most subtle bass playing I’ve ever heard by Jimmy Garrison, who would also join Coltrane’s band a few years later.
“Blues De Funk” is a steaming blues – bop number. Thad Jones’ muted flugelhorn lines are slow, syncopated, and sensuous. Golson sounds like a cross between Lucky Thompson and Gene “Jug” Ammons, and Fuller dances around the precise piano chord comping laid down by Tyner. At one point, Fuller strolls with Jimmy Garrison’s restless bass lines while the rest of the band lays out. The harmonies created on the song’s head by Fuller, Jones, and Golson are in pure bebop form.
Dave Bailey is a very relaxed and subtle drummer, which is perfect for this piece and all five of the compositions on this album.
“Lido Blues” is a mid-tempo ballad which has a big bebop band sound, similar to Tadd Dameron’s charts from the early to mid ‘50s. This is a fat, sweet, and lush sound that blasts the conscious mind out beyond the sun and stars, if you allow it. Tyner solos first, followed by Jones, Golson, and Fuller. This is an inspired performance for those of us who understand, love, and cherish the many inescapable traditions of jazz up to that point in time.
During an era in which many jazz musicians were getting further away from melody, tradition, and lyricism, Curtis Fuller and his “Sextette” remind us that the music can still be daring and disciplined at the same time. Do not go without this piece of magic called Imagination.