Curtis Amy

Mosaic Select: Curtis Amy

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Of all the volumes in the Mosaic Select series -- as of this writing there are eight -- none is more welcome or unexpected than this set by the late saxophonist, composer, and arranger, Curtis Amy. What these three CDs contain are Amy's entire six-album output for the Pacific Jazz label which includes his masterpiece, Katanga!. Amy's star continued to shine in different contexts after he left the label, as a tough tenor with Gerald Wilson and Ray Charles, as a soloist on the Doors' Soft Parade and L.A. Woman albums, and of course, as an arranger and bandleader in R&B singer Merry Clayton's group (the pair were married).

But it is the material here which cements Amy's place in the jazz pantheon. Amy hailed from Houston, and is very much a part of the rich and varied Texas tenor tradition. He migrated to Los Angeles to work, and fronted numerous soul-jazz bands there before recording these six albums for Pacific Jazz. The titles include the Blues Message and Meetin' Here (co-led with organist Paul Bryant), Groovin' Blue (co-led with drummer Frank Butler), and Way Down, Tippin' on Through, and Katanga! (the latter three as a solo leader), all of them issued between 1960 and 1963. The first three albums in this set offer the view of Amy as a bluesed-out soul wailer in a scene dominated by the latter heyday of cool jazzers and West Coast hard boppers. The players on these three recordings offered a glimpse into the deep R&B roots of the Sunset Strip jazz club scene: along with Bryant and Butler, trombonist Roy Brewster, drummer Jimmy Miller, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, and bassists Jimmy Bond and Clarence Jones played on these sessions, all of them stalwarts on that steaming but criminally undocumented scene. The fourth album in the set, Way Down, features some new faces, most notably Marcus Belgrave before his stint with Charles Mingus, and vibist Roy Ayers before he went solo. Other players on the date include bassist George Morrow, and pianist Victor Feldman. Tippin' on Through is a Live at the Lighthouse date, and Amy pulled out all the stops with Larance Marable, Brewster, Bobby Whitlock, and pianist John Houston. On all of these sessions, Amy is deeply rooted in the rhythm and blues and soul traditions of the Texas tenors. His combo work is restricted rhythmically perhaps, but it is harmonically brilliant in the way it stretches these forms to the breaking point at the front line, and the pieces on the live set dovetail and turn back on themselves -- dig the large modal frames Houston lays down under Ayers' vibes: Ayers then extrapolates them for the horns to jump off from. Texturally too, the way solos are layered and dovetail and turn back on themselves dynamically is quite remarkable, in that many of the New York soul-jazz dates didn't get to this place until 1966 or so. Finally, Amy was already deeply under the sway of Coltrane on Tippin' on Through: his own solos take the modal approach, and wind around one or two phrases and blow them from the inside out, exploding into torrents of sound without moving away from the blues.

Katanga! is a case in point all by itself. It remains a jazz classic for its wondrously extrapolated and striated harmonics, its knotty sense of interval, and Amy's melodic sophistication, which was deeply saturated with Latin and African scalar considerations. This set also features the trumpet playing of the little-known and under-recorded Dupree Bolton, the elegant funk of guitarist Ray Crawford, and features Amy on soprano, an instrument that he mastered and became an original voice on, despite the fact that he had played it for such a brief time previous to this session. Here, despite the elongated compositional structures, the blues are never out of the limelight entirely. The title track, written by Dupree Bolton, and "Lonely Woman" (Amy's version, not Ornette Coleman's) are the highlights here, but there isn't a weak millisecond on this slab. In all, this collection is its own revelation -- not only of Amy's overlooked artistry, but of the city of L.A. teeming with fresh sounds and approaches before the steamroller of rock and roll overshadowed it.

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