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Curtis Amy: Mosaic Select

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For all those who have regarded Mosaic boxed sets as the gold standard among jazz reissue programs, the recently introduced Mosaic Select series requires some spirit of compromise. The seventh release in the series, for example, provides only six short paragraphs of current retrospective on the career of tenor saxophonist Curtis Amy. In a “real” Mosaic collection, we would have gotten a full-size catalog, an extravagance of session photos and a new in-depth essay by a leading Amy authority with voluminous discographical data. In this three-CD set, we get only the undistinguished original liner notes.

But if the Select series is budget-challenged, it is also free to go where big Mosaic boxed sets cannot-for example, to artists whose recorded output is sparse, and/or whose appeal is limited to (in Mosaic founder/producer Michael Cuscuna’s words) “a relatively small but discerning audience.”

Case in point, Curtis Amy. He came out of Houston, Texas-a fact that is announced with his entrance on the very first track of disc one, “Searchin’.” After Paul Bryant’s plaintive prologue on Hammond B3, Amy emerges with a huge, long, braying wail, a sound that only emanates from one (Lone Star) state.

Unlike the other great Texas tenors who came up in the ’40s and ’50s (Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Booker Ervin, David “Fathead” Newman, et. al.), Amy went west. He settled in Los Angeles in 1955, became active on the L.A. scene and recorded six LPs for Richard Bock’s Pacific label between 1960 and 1963. All six are here, and only one of them, Katanga!, has ever been previously reissued on CD. Between 1963 and 1994, Amy recorded only once under his own name. During these years he played in L.A. big bands, toured with Ray Charles, and worked as a studio musician, record company executive, and actor. He died at the age of 72 in 2002.

Amy was more than just a special player. He was a commanding figure with a big, blustering sound and chops to burn, a teller of definitive tales of the soul. The first two albums represented, The Blues Message and Meetin’ Here, with the little known Bryant, are examples of the tenor/organ combo genre as powerful as anything that ever came out of New York. Amy could testify with anyone, and he was also an exceptional ballad interpreter (“Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Angel Eyes”).

The progress of these six albums moves from deep blues grooves to more textured and sophisticated-but still soulful-approaches. Along the way, a door is opened to a subset of West Coast jazz much earthier than the famous “cool school,” while still reflecting a sunnier environment than that of East Coast hard bop. Amy surrounds himself with some of the best players of that time and place, like Carmell Jones and Dupree Bolton and Frank Strazzeri and Frank Butler. But his own clarion, assertive voice always dominates.

The collection culminates in what Michael Cuscuna calls “Amy’s masterpiece,” Katanga!. It is indeed an album where everything magically works, from inspiration through execution. Pianist Jack Wilson and guitarist Ray Crawford use their allotted space beautifully, and Amy, in a stunning purity of tone, introduces his new instrument, soprano saxophone. But Katanga! will always be remembered as the last documented appearance on record of trumpeter Dupree Bolton, one of the most mysterious and tragic figures in the history of jazz. Bolton could spit fire and turn the flames into music on a level approaching Clifford Brown. But after Katanga! he disappeared into prisons, institutions and a life on the streets.