Curtis Fuller/Hampton Hawes: Curtis Fuller and Hampton Hawes with French Horns (1960)
One would be hard pressed to find an instrument less suited to jazz than the French horn. Firmly rooted in classical music and played sitting down, the French horn seems almost to resist being pulled from the orchestra pit. Of course, this didn't stop people from using it. The wide experimentation of the forties and fifties brought several new instruments to the jazz spectrum; as a result, the French horn gained a few advocates along the way. Mostly, though, this was in larger group settings; very few souls were daring enough to suggest that it could be used in a smaller context. Fuller and Hawes were not only willing to try, but to make the focus of the session.
If nothing else, Fuller and Hawes achieve the distinction of leading the only small group to ever feature two French horns in the front line. Just from this fact alone, you can expect to hear something a little different. The three brass instruments are similar enough that they blend quite nicely and, in some cases, are almost indistinguishable from one another. Shihab's alto provides a necessary balance to what would otherwise be a somewhat murky front line; his brittle lines add variety while cutting through the chocolate tones of the other three.
As far as the songs themselves go, Fuller is up to his usual bop trickery and Hawes pounds away skillfully as well. The French horn, however, is not well suited to this type of music and lacks the force to pull off a solo without sounding a little feeble next to the other two. Two French horn solos also gets a bit repetitive. Better is the somber choreography of "A-Drift" and "Five Spot" which sounds a bit like early Mingus; here the horns add rich colorings without having to navigate the changes.
Like any album that wears its eccentricities on its sleeve, this one is not without its flaws but is certainly unique and enjoyable when it works. Both Fuller and Hawes's body of work are well served by this reissue.
Track Listing: Ronnie's Tune, Roc and Troll, A-Drift, Five Spot, Lyriste, No Crooks.
Personnel: Curtis Fuller, trombone; Sahib Shihab, alto sax; Julius Watkins and David Amram, French horns; Hampton Hawes, piano; Addison Farmer, bass; Jerry Segal, drums.
Record Label: Fantasy Jazz