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Curtis Fuller: Curtis Fuller: The Opener – Blue Note 1567

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From the very first notes, it's obvious that Curtis Fuller's The Opener is something completely different.

Yes, it's bop. Yes, it features the usual lineup of two horns, piano, bass and drums. And yes, one of those horns is saxman Hank Mobley, who, by law, was required to appear on every single Blue Note album in the 1950s and '60s. (Or maybe it only seems that way.)

But wait—what's going on with those four opening notes? They're soft and slow. This isn't hard bop at all. This must be... yes, it's a ballad! And wait—that horn doesn't sound like a trumpet or a saxophone. It sounds like... yes, it's a trombone! It's a trombone playing a ballad. And it's the very first song of the album.

OK, I kid. But truly, this is something foreign to the 1950s Blue Note playbook. The number of 1950s Blue Note bandleaders playing trombone can be counted on one hand—maybe even two fingers. And your typical Blue Note album from this period almost always opened with a wham-bam powerful hard bop tune.

So The Opener—a 1957 date led by trombonist Curtis Fuller—breaks the rules in more ways than one. And it's a very welcome change of pace.

The album has six songs. Two are sweet ballads, including the opening cut, one is a slow blues, one is a Latin number with a complex, intriguing rhythm, and only the last two are standard hard bop pieces. It's not exactly your father's Blue Note.

Granted, the band is familiar. Other than Fuller, leading his first session, the players include Mobley, Bobby Timmons on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Art Taylor on drums. And even Fuller, a relative newcomer in 1957, is not entirely fresh. He played with John Coltrane on the classic Blue Train that same year, and went on to become a regular with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

By far, the most interesting tune on The Opener is a number called "Oscarlypso," penned by Oscar Pettiford. It's a 5-minute piece that features—pardon the Gershwin pun—a fascinating rhythm, with drums and bass setting odd patterns, and the horns laying down cool grooves. It's far outside the usual Blue Note thing.

The two ballads—the opener, "A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening," and Johnny Mercer's "Here's to My Lady"—are superb. Clearly Blue Note was trying to establish Fuller as a sentimental alternative to J.J. Johnson. It works. The ballads, plus the slow blues of the second track, a Fuller original called "Hugore," make this a relaxing record indeed—at least half the record, anyway.

Finally, the album closes with two routine bop numbers: Another Fuller original, "Lizzy's Bounce," and the Gershwin standard "Soon." Nice numbers, though not anything special.

The Opener is a good introduction to Curtis Fuller, who went on to a long, productive career. It's an atypical Blue Note record, but a worthwhile addition to any jazz collection.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Availability: Plenty of copies available

Cost: Just $5 used, and not much more new

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