Thursday, January 17, 2013

Curtis Amy - Testifyin’ Texas Tenor


© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


That Texas tenor sound is a phenomenon in itself. David “Fathead” Newman, Don Wilkerson, Booker Ervin, James Clay, King Curtis and Wilton Felder were some of its major exponents to emerge in the fifties. As different as their styles were, they shared a rich, hard, vibrato-less sound and a clear, deliberate articulation.

The sound is strong, sure and prideful, but with an underlying vulnerability. It's pas­sionate. … Cannonball Adderley described it as ‘a moan inside the tone.’ …”
- Michael Cuscuna, 1997

One could certainly add the name of Curtis Amy to the above list of Texas Tenor saxophonists.

Soul and Funk were the big, new discoveries of a number of Jazz record companies in the early 1960s. With their heavy backbeats and simple melodic refrains, the soulful and funky Jazz styles appealed to a wider audience, particularly those who liked their Jazz laced with a heavy dose of rhythm and blues.

The origins or “roots” [an “in” word for those times] of soulful and funky Jazz supposedly were to be found in their connection to the religious music that was sung and played in southern Baptist and Pentecostal churches. Music, as well as, prayer was one means of penitence, or, in the parlance of the times, testifyin or signifyin’ one’s spiritual allegiance.

Bluesy albums set to a boogaloo beat were another by-product of this era of Jazz commercialism and words like “funky” and “groovy” and “soulful” were plastered all over LP covers.

It was a fun music to play, especially if you were a drummer. Nothing complicated. Music played at slow-to-moderate tempos, with melodies mainly derived from 12-bar blues and lots of rim shots or two-beat shuffles tapped out on the snare and bass drums.

The vocal epitome of this style of music was “brother” Ray Charles whose tambourine-totting background singers were always there to show the audience where to clap their hands or stomp their feet on the second and fourth beats of every bar of the music.

But, hey, even Jazz musicians have to eat and pay the rent and the popularity of Soul and Funk provided lots of gigs until the dramatic rise of Rock ‘n Roll took things in a different direction in the 1960s.

Tenor saxophonist Curtis Amy came to prominence during this era and the titles of some of his recordings – The Blues Message, Meetin’ Here, Way Down, Groovin’ Blue, - are reflective of it.

Texas tenorman Curtis Amy had a long and distinguished career as a jazz artist, studio musician and  record executive. During his years with Pacific Jazz, he recorded six superb albums that revealed an artist who constantly challenged himself as an improviser and as a composer.

With the exception of Katanga which was issued as a limited edition CD in 1998 by Blue Note as part of its West Coast Classics series [CDP 94580], none of Amy’s output for Pacific Jazz was reissued digitally until Michael Cuscuna and his team at Mosaic Records collected all six of the Amy Pacific Jazz LP’s and put them out as a 3-CD Mosaic Select boxed-set in 2003.

Here is the text from mosaicrecords.com announcing this set.


The Bluesy Drive of a Great Texas Tenor.

“There’s nothing quite like the mournful cry or the bluesy drive of a great Texas tenor saxophonist. Curtis Amy was of the same generation as Booker Ervin, David Fathead Newman, James Clay and Wilton Felder, but his time in the jazz spotlight was brief. Amy had a beautiful sound and a style that was both muscular and lyrical. Although he had a long and successful career in his transplanted home of Los Angeles, much of it was spent doing high profile studio work and working with his wife, the extraordinary Merry Clayton.

During his years with Pacific Jazz (1960-63), he recorded six superb albums that revealed an artist who constantly challenged himself as an improviser and as a composer. After The Blues Message and Meetin’ Here, two soulful collaborations with organist Paul Bryant, he moved into more textured hard bop surroundings, fronting sextets with varied instrumentation. He and Frank Butler co-led Groovin’ Blue, which features Carmell Jones and Bobby Hutcherson. Way Down includes Roy Ayers, Marcus Belgrave, Victor Feldman and valve trombonist Roy Brewster among others.

Tippin’ On Through was recorded live at the Lighthouse with Ayers and Brewster among others. Amy’s final album for the label Katanga is regarded as his masterpiece; it featured the legendary trumpeter Dupree Bolton as well as Ray Crawford and Jack Wilson. From the furious be-bop of the title tune to the lament "Lonely Woman" to the hypnotic, extended performance of "Native Land", Amy's work as an improviser and composer is at its zenith. Trumpeter Dupree Bolton, who made an impressive debut on Harold Land's "The Fox" three years earlier, is absolutely dazzling with a brash attack, formidable chops and very original ideas.

Although he made two more albums (in 1966 and 1994) and recorded with Gerald Wilson and Onzy Matthews, the six albums that he made for Pacific Jazz – all contained in this Mosaic Select set represent his greatest legacy. Amazingly, five of them make their appearance on CD for the first time.”

Thomas Conrad offered the following review of the Mosaic Select: Curtis Amy set in the May 2004 edition of JazzTimes.


© -Thomas Conrad, JazzTimes, May 2004, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“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.”

The following video montage features Curtis Amy on soprano saxophone playing his original composition Lonely Woman. The tune is included on the Mosaic Select set and the Katanga CD. Curtis is joined by Dupree Bolton on trumpet, Ray Crawford on guitar, Jack Wilson on piano, Victor Gaskin on bass and Doug Sides on drums.