The jazz world lost a strong voice in trumpeter Ted Curson, who died on Sunday at 77. But it wasn't a voice all that widely known, even among his natural jazz constituency. During the 1960s, Curson had as interesting a career as many more recognized players, but for whatever reason he never had the celebrated career that his music would seem to warrant.
If you know him at all, you know his work with Charles Mingus, which could hardly be more impressive. I agree with the general consensus that Mingus at Antibes is Curson at his fierce and unflappable best. But I appreciate Ethan Iverson's case for Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, an obviously important album, and one that certainly benefits by Curson's soulful and cohesive presence. If I could tweak the obituary to make a nod to that album, I probably would. (Iverson is spot on about Curson's time, which I think has a lot to do with his deep study of Clifford Brown, who was just five years older but for all intents and purposes part of the preceding jazz generation. There's also a larger point Iverson makes about American music, "folk" and Elliott Carter. I won't attempt to paraphrase it here.)
Curson's work with Cecil Taylor, while less consequential than his Mingus apprenticeship, is also worth examining. He appears briefly on Taylor's portion of the Gil Evans album Into the Hot, but his more prominent contribution is to Love for Sale, a fascinating oddity. (Here is Gary Giddins discussing that album, and relaying a Curson anecdote about Cecil's exacting standard of preparation.)
So that's Mingus and Cecil, two leading vanguardists of the '60s. Throw Shepp into the picture and you begin to see Curson's legacy in avant-garde terms: he was a new-thing trumpeter with an old-school concept, a fine example of the free-bop ethos at its inception.
And yet Curson's own music complicates that narrative. Perhaps you have heard the undervalued albums he made with saxophonist Bill Barron: smart stuff, but not particularly invested in breaking apart form or subverting order. When Curson recorded the album known as Ted Curson Group Featuring Eric Dolphy, in 1961, he opted for assertive hard-bop in the Clifford Brown vein, with a band that includes his childhood friend Jimmy Garrison on bass, and several different drummers: his fellow Mingus alum Dannie Richmond, along with Pete La Roca and Roy Haynes. Here is one of the more subdued tracks from the album, a ballad performance featuring Dolphy's flute:
And of course people have heard "Tears for Dolphy," the haunting elegy that Curson recorded and released in 1964. (Among other places, it has appeared in the infamous Vincent Gallo film The Brown Bunny, apparently as an homage of sorts to Pier Paolo Pasolini, who used some uncredited Curson music in Teorema.)
I'll bet, though, that many jazz fans — even some Ted Curson fans — aren't all that familiar with The New Thing & The Blue Thing, whose album cover appears at the top of this post. Released on Atlantic in 1965, it features his quintet with Barron, which had Georges Arvanitas on piano, Herb Bushler on bass and Dick Berk on drums.
Every track but one (the standard "Star Eyes") is a Curson original, and they cover some ground: "Ted's Tempo" is a crisp swinger, while "Reava's Waltz" has a touch of Mingus swagger. "Nublu" incorporates an intervallic motion reminiscent of Eddie Harris's "Freedom Jazz Dance," while the opening track, bearing the O.G. title "Straight Ice," nods in the direction of Bobby Timmons.
The whole enterprise feels like a smart triangulation of in-the-pocket hard-bop, post-Coltrane modality and the avant-garde, though in truth the liberties are subtle. It's not an envelope-pushing album, despite the title, which may or may not have been Curson's idea. That said, here's a hypothetical: what if The New Thing & The Blue Thing had appeared on Blue Note instead of Atlantic? Make that album a Wolff-Lion special, and I think it becomes a minor classic, and a signature part of Curson's legacy.
But of course Blue Note already had a stable of excellent trumpeters traversing this terrain. And perhaps I'm not giving the Atlantic marketing department enough credit — or maybe the label just didn't have enough resources to back Curson, in a year when it was also putting out albums by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, King Curtis, Hank Crawford, Hubert Laws, Eddie Harris, the MJQ and Sonny and Cher. As Curson himself once put it: "On so many of my records, the company would tell me up front they weren’t going to promote it. If people found it, fine; if they didn’t, fine. It was like a Frisbee, another Ted Curson Frisbee, and if the dog don’t catch it, too bad!”
That quote comes from a short but thorough profile by Chris Kelsey that ran in JazzTimes in 2006. Worth reading, if you want more perspective on Curson's life and career. You will also want to read Giddins on Curson in JazzTimes the previous year. And here is the farewell post that Peter Hum ran earlier this week, with some more YouTube footage.
Finally, in searching Curson's name again I just stumbled across some good news: WKCR 89.9 FM, the invaluable Columbia University jazz station, will be run a memorial edition of its Jazz Profiles show this Sunday, 2-7 p.m. Tune in if you can.
Updated, 11a.m.: I neglected to mention the Curson post at Destination: Out, which includes a couple of tracks from his 1966 Fontana album Urge. (Guess I unwittingly cribbed the title for this post from D:O. Thanks, guys. Great minds!)