Curtis Fuller, who we lost this past weekend, is my favorite trombonist in the history of music. His playing is at once soulful, grooving, lyrical, harmonically adept, and technically agile and he was an underappreciated composer and bandleader to boot. I often find myself steering students towards his work to demonstrate how obstacles limiting one’s ability to “shred” needn’t prevent one from sounding great on fast tempos and/or in the company of those who can play with greater technical ease. In his case, in most of the recordings to which I steer people (including 1-9 on this list) the obstacles in question are due to the inherently cumbersome nature of his instrument, but it’s worth noting how much great music he made after he had surgery to remove a lung. For years I assumed that was a weird rumor because I kept going to hear him perform and marveling at how a sixty-something (and then seventy-something) year old trombonist could sound so good even with two working lungs. As a physically impaired jazz musician myself, this elevated Curtis even further in my own pantheon of inspiring figures.
I could have made a much longer list of tracks just from his many recordings as a bandleader, and the long list of sideman performances I grudgingly omitted includes sessions with Blue Mitchell, Kenny Dorham, Abbey Lincoln, Hank Mobley, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Clark, the Jazztet, Bud Powell, Mickey Tucker, Bobby Watson, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Sonny Clark, Joe Henderson, and Cedar Walton. among many others. With those caveats in place, here are my picks, presented in chronological order.
1 ) “High Step” from High Step by Paul Chambers (recorded 1956)
Also reissued under John Coltrane’s name (in a compilation of his sideman work), Curtis’ first known recording session otherwise revolves around Detroiters, with Chambers and Pepper Adams, along with ‘Trane and “Philly” Joe Jones. Though new to the recording game, Curtis sounds not the least bit green on his authoritative solo.
2 ) “Morning” from Jazz Mood by Yusef Lateef (recorded 1957)
Though this is far from his most important legacy, it’s striking how often Curtis can be heard as a foil to some of the great tenor saxophonists of his era (including those represented elsewhere on this list) and as such it felt particularly important to represent his personal and musical relationship with his fellow Motor City native Yusef Lateef, in this case alongside a host of other cats associated with the Detroit scene, including pianist Hugh Lawson, bassist Ernie Farrow (heard here on rabat), drummer Louis Hayes, and bassist Doug Watkins (both heard here on percussion). This early East-meets-West song has a serious vibe, underpinned by a quintessential Yusef-penned piano vamp that we hear Lawson reintroduce roughly a decade later on Yusef’s “Like It Is.” Curtis plays a lyrical, moody solo that is a highlight of the track.
3 ) “Arabia” from The Curtis Fuller Jazztet (also issued as Arabia) (recorded 1959)
Perhaps better known from the version recorded with Art Blakey, this slower version of the Fuller original “Arabia” is one of the great examples of Curtis swinging hard at a relaxed tempo. The all-star band swaggering alongside him includes Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Charli Persip.
4 ) “Bang Bang” from Imagination (recorded 1959)
Curtis utterly COOKS on this fast blues tune, giving us all a clinic on how one can sound completely fluid, confident, and effortless in a context that on paper should be overwhelming given the technical challenges of the instrument. The fellow members of the frontline, tenor saxophonist and frequent collaborator Benny Golson and trumpeter Thad Jones, burn here, as does a rhythm section anchored by McCoy Tyner making his recorded debut on piano.
5 ) “Alamode” from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (also issued as Jazz Messengers!!!!!) by Art Blakey (recorded 1961)
This energetic swinger is probably Curtis’ best-known composition, in large part because the version here is so iconic. This is also his first recording with the Messengers, augmenting the well-documented lineup of Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, and Bobby Timmons (all of whom can be heard here shining as soloists, as does Curtis of course), and Jymie Merritt.
6 ) “When Lights Are Low” from Three Blind Mice by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (recorded 1962)
While I’m fond of Curtis’ own rendition of this Benny Carter tune from three years prior, his spotlighted performance of the tune with the Messengers is one of my favorite trombone features ever, period. His playing is so swinging and so melodic that it almost feels anticlimactic when the solo eventually ends after four full choruses. It feels crazy to only document one track from this highly influential (both globally and in my own life) Blakey lineup with Freddie Hubbard and Cedar Walton joining Shorter and Merritt (with Reggie Workman in the bass chair on some other recordings), so I encourage any of you who haven’t already to dive in – this album, Mosaic, Caravan, and Free For All, while the tip of the iceberg, will help you get started.
7 ) “Sop City” from Smokin’ (recorded 1972)
When Ted Dunbar taught me this tune in college I hadn’t heard the record and thus didn’t actually realize Ted played on it (alongside Jimmy Heath, Bill Hardman, Cedar Walton, Mickey Bass, and Billy Higgins). This song swings hard (yes, you are noticing a trend) and the whole record is prime Curtis, certainly debunking any notion that he “peaked” in the early ‘60s and then went downhill.
8 ) “Little Dreams” from Four on the Outside (recorded 1978)
I first learned this tune from listening to Steve Davis play it live when I was first getting serious about jazz, without knowing what it was and assuming from its timeless melody that it was a standard or maybe a tune I couldn’t place by Duke Ellington or Tadd Dameron. It is, instead, a should-be-a-standard, delivered here with both groove and tenderness by Curtis and fellow soloists Pepper Adams, James Williams, and Dennis Irwin
9 ) “Capt’ Kid” from Blues-ette, Pt. 2 (recorded 1993)
This one is significant for a few reasons. One is that we get to hear Curtis’s infectious gift with Latin-flavored music, both with the pen and with the trombone. Another is that it reunites most of the lineup from one of his great early recordings as a bandleader, with Benny Golson, Tommy Flanagan, and Al Harewood returning for another session over 30 years past the original Blues-ette (not to be confused with the Toots Thielemans tune by the same name), alongside Ray Drummond in place of the late Jimmy Garrison. Perhaps most significant is that this is his last session as a leader before his fateful surgery, really shining a light on just how powerful his playing was even into his late fifties.
10 ) “The Right to Love” from The Story of Cathy and Me (recorded 2010)
This moving album is a rumination on Curtis’s life with his wife Cathy and her eventual struggle with and cruelly ironic passing from lung cancer. Much of the album doesn’t even include Curtis on trombone, and it almost seems like that will be true of this Lalo Schifrin/Gene Lees ballad, revolving around soulful vocals by Tia Michelle Rouse. But then Curtis comes in to show that he can still play and to demonstrate his exceptional gift at playing ballads.