Jubilant Power

On June 3, the eve of his 70th birthday, Ted Curson played the night away with Henry Grimes at Greenwich Village’s Cornelia Street Café. With jazz, you never know: A much-hyped event may sink into a slough of expectations and a little-noted one-nighter keep you slaphappy for a week. These casual duets, which attracted a full house but no reviews, exemplified the latter—a reunion of two Philadelphians of the same age (Grimes will turn 70 in November), who made a difference in jazz in the 1960s and then followed discrete paths beyond the ken of most jazz lovers.

Grimes left music altogether, disappearing so completely into private life that he was rumored to be a preacher or dead. His recent return and yeoman schedule, after a 37-year sabbatical, have shown that the great bassist with the encyclopedic résumé (from Willis Jackson and Benny Goodman to Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler and many more) has retained not only his technique—the rock-solid pitch, magisterial tone and harmonic ingenuity—but also his indefatigable staying power.

Curson never left music; in fact, his stock continued to rise—overseas anyway. Having played Antibes with the 1960 Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop, Curson determined to return to Europe with his own group in 1964, and he triumphed everywhere, establishing a loyal base of operation. But Curson never went the expatriate route. He spent winters with his family in New Jersey, working intermittently—in the 1980s he was host of the late-night jam sessions at the Blue Note, and has long been a mainstay at Trumpets in his neighborhood of Montclair. Curson spent summers abroad, where he achieved bona-fide stardom, including red-carpet status (literally) at Finland’s annual Pori Jazz Festival and chart-worthy record sales (as vocalist as well as trumpeter) in Japan. His European renown generated two particularly sweet paydays when Pasolini used Curson’s dirge “Tears for Dolphy” in his film Teorema and Vincent Gallo did the same for last year’s notorious The Brown Bunny.

The birthday gig was a triumph, because several years ago Curson had shown signs of failing chops, one reason he developed a highly original and enjoyable scat vocal style. Well, the chops are back: the distinguishing sound, bright and plaintive all at once; the short charging phrases, rhythmic fillips and circuitous variations that soar over turnbacks and land with a kick; the unforced lyricism. Curson played “Stella by Starlight” on trumpet, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” on flugelhorn, “Bye Bye Blackbird” on four-valve piccolo trumpet (including a ripping vocal, using a series of dentalized scat syllables and an interpolation of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”), “All the Things You Are” on trumpet and flugelhorn and “Georgia on My Mind,” which he sang, backed by Grimes and two spontaneous sitters-in, trumpeter Roy Campbell and guitarist Enrico Granafei.

Probably only a few of us were disappointed at the lack of Curson’s tricky originals. Years ago, I asked him if he was still writing as much as he once did, and he said he was waiting for people to catch up with the pieces he had been recording and playing for years. Indeed, his neglected compositions comprise a singular, durable body of work: in addition to “Tears for Dolphy,” such stylish, witty, and memorable melodies as “Reava’s Waltz,” “Cinq Quatre,” “Roy’s Boys,” “Quicksand,” “Playhouse March,” “The Leopard,” “Piccolo Blues,” “Straight Ice,” “Marjo” and the theme of his alter ego, “Snake Johnson.” Like the writings of Jimmy Heath and Gigi Gryce, they merit revival, especially now when so many albums sink under the weight of unremarkable originals or overworked standards.

After studying at Mastbaum High and with such neighbors as Jimmy and Albert Heath, Jimmy Garrison, Lee Morgan and Johnny Splawn, Curson went on the road at 18, playing carnivals and returning home for a summer gig with Charlie Ventura. Miles Davis heard him in 1956 and convinced him to try New York, where he soon worked with Duke Jordan and Red Garland, among others, before embarking on historic back-to-back affiliations: a year rehearsing with Cecil Taylor—in a band that also included saxophonist Bill Barron—before recording Love for Sale (Taylor also recruited him for “Mixed” on Into the Hot) and two years with Mingus, which brought him a “New Star” award at Monterey, a trip across the ocean, hundreds of anecdotes and impressive recorded appearances, especially Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.

Curson sounded like no one else. Associated with the avant-garde, he was in fact a melodic and harmonic player who could go inside and out on the changes with equal facility. In that period of the late ’50s and early ’60s, after Booker Little’s death and before Freddie Hubbard’s rise, Curson was the most significant voice on his instrument. He and Bill Barron organized a vital quartet (sometimes a quintet, with Bill’s teenage prodigy brother, Kenny), and together or alone recorded widely for Old Town, Savoy, Prestige, Fontana and, most hauntingly, Atlantic (The New Thing & the Blue Thing). Another killer, Urge (Fontana), teamed Curson with Booker Ervin, who later worked New York in a Curson quintet.

Periodic U.S. triumphs followed, as Curson organized a series of exceptional small groups, usually with baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola and drummer Dick Berk. His wildly successful extended sextet engagement at New York’s Tin Palace in 1976 (a group that helped to launch Brignola, altoist Chris Woods, pianist Jim McNeely, bassist David Friesen and drummer Steve McCall) represented the birth of the loft era. But only one album resulted (Jubilant Power), and a glance at the Curson discography tells the story of his divided life: Plenty of records, many of the best made in Paris, Helsinki, Prague, Amsterdam, Stockholm—and not distributed here. Search them out. Here is a musician who deserves homeland security.

Originally published in September 2005

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