Down Home-- Curtis Fuller

This recording could easily have been released by Blue Note in the '60's, and if it had been then perhaps a track approaching the popularity of Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder" might have emerged from its highly listenable slate of tunes. Fuller calls the quintet heard on this CD his "band of choice," and it compares favorably to the best groups the 77-year-old trombonist has been a part of in his long career, including Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, the Timeless All-Stars, and both the original and later revival of The Jazztet. This ensemble came together in 2005, and was heard on Keith Oxman's 2006 Dues In Progress, as well as Fuller's own I Will Tell Her from 2010. In addition to Fuller and tenor saxophonist Oxman, the group consists of Al Hood on trumpet and flugelhorn, Chip Stephens on piano, Ken Walker on bass, and Todd Reid on drums. Fuller brought six of his finest previously recorded compositions to the session, while pieces by Oxman and Stephens, as well as one somewhat neglected standard fill out the admirable program.

The Fuller-Oxman-Hood front line seems to capture Horace Silver's gospel/funk spirit on the title tune, "Down Home," a Fuller tune from the '50's. Both the playing of the jubilant theme and the individual solos are infectious. Reid kicks the groove endlessly, and Stephens' closing blues-drenched statement offers a subtle nod to Silver while mostly maintaining his own stylistic preferences. "Ladies Night," a Fuller opus first recorded on his 1962 Soul Trombone LP, owes a debt to "On Green Dolphin Street" in its opening motif and rhythmic pattern, but once the buoyant, driving theme erupts the resemblance ends. Oxman's swirling tenor, Fuller's deep-throated trombone, Hood's warm, round-toned trumpet, and Stephens' darting piano, all have their individual says on this instant classic that culminates much as it began.

A repeating graduated motif is at the center of Stephens' "C Hip's Blues." Fuller's conversational improv cleverly quotes from "Sweet and Lovely." Oxman follows with nimble and lusty articulation, and Stephens caps this series of concise solos with one containing extended arpeggiated lines. After the melody's return, a jabbing and spicy solo by Hood is offered before the insinuating theme reappears yet again, only to be succeeded by Stephens' forthright coda to definitively end this terrific arrangement. "Sadness and Soul" is a ballad feature for composer Stephens, set to Latin rhythms. The pianist's pulsating solo is executed with an appealingly light touch, after which the beautifully harmonized reading of the melody is reprised with Stephens' darting filigrees seasoning the mix. Fuller's "Nu Groove" was recorded by him in 1980 with Kai Winding (Giant Bones '80). The spaced-out staccato head lends itself to alternately sparse and gushing improvisatory inclinations, which is exactly what Stephens, Oxman, Fuller, and Walker provide as they adroitly explore all the thematic contours and, as Monk might have said, brilliant corners.

The rarely chosen, lovely Harbourg/Schwartz ballad "Then I'll Be Tired of You" is delicately and expressively navigated by Oxman's tenor with a rich timbre and uncliched, tasteful lines. Shades of Coltrane with Johnny Hartman appear at times in his tonal inflections (Trane and Hartman both recorded this, but separately). Stephens and Walker get to expound as well, with authority and compelling delineation, as Fuller sits this one out. The leader first recorded his "Mr. L" in 1960 with Freddie Hubbard and Yusef Lateef (Boss of the Soul-Stream Trombone). It's a medium-tempo loping swinger that generates down-to-earth, short but sweet solos from Oxman, Fuller, Hood, and Stephens. There may indeed be nothing new under the sun, but this heartwarming performance proves that there really doesn't have to be. "Sweetness" also appeared on the 1980 album with Kai Winding. The ensemble harmonies on this mellow theme are choice and succulent, as is Hood's frolicsome solo inspired by it. Oxman's improv is more somber but just as satisfying. Fuller's outing is notable for his immensely profound sound, and Stephens acquits himself well yet again in his probing exploration. The reprise is lifted by Hood's pungent fills, which also graced the opening.

Oxman's "Jonli Bercosta" is another outstanding throwback to soul jazz anthems going back decades. Highlights include Oxman's gruff, expansive solo, Stephens' keen exchanges with the exuberant, prodding Reid, and Hood's dynamic improvisation that falls somewhere between Lee Morgan and Blue Mitchell. Fuller's "The High Priest" is his tribute to Thelonious Monk, and debuted on The Jazz Messengers 1964 Kyoto recording. Bearing some resemblance to the Davis/Feldman "Seven Steps to Heaven," this tune begets agile, inquisitive solos from the composer, Oxman, Hood, and Stephens, all at the top of their games. Reid's forceful drum work helps make this finale one of the most memorable of the 10 winning selections that regale our ears on Down Home.

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Scott Albin