Ted Curson - trumpet
Chris Woods - alto sax, soprano sax
Nick Brignola - baritone sax
Jim McNeely - piano
David Friesen - bass
Sam Jacobs - percussion
Steve McCall - drums
This Carnegie Hall concert marked trumpeter Ted Curson's return to the United States after being abroad (mostly in Denmark) since the late 1960s. "He's been away from the scene here in the United States for too long," says the emcee of this 1976 Newport Jazz Festival event. "He's been playing in Europe but he's back in the States now, hopefully for good."
An aggressive soloist with a distinct post-Lee Morgan edge in his trumpet style, Curson easily straddles the hard bop and free bop divide. The South Philly native (born June 3, 1935) is perhaps best known for his association with Charles Mingus' band of 1960 (where he played alongside Eric Dolphy). Accompanied here by a stellar crew of alto and soprano saxophonist Chris Woods, baritone sax ace Nick Brignola, pianist Jim McNeely, bassist David Friesen, percussionist Sam Jacobs and drummer Steve McCall (a charter member of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Music), they come out of the gate charging hard on the tumultuous "Quicksand." Curson solos first as Friesen, Jacobs and McCall churn it up underneath in sizzling 6/8 fashion. He is followed in order by Woods on an impassioned, Coltrane-inspired soprano solo, then Brignola contributes an astonishingly fluid, high register bari solo that showcases his unparalleled virtuosity on that unwieldy horn. McNeely, who had been comping forcefully behind all the solos in powerful McCoy Tyneresque fashion, enters the fray with a whirlwind solo of his own on the Steinway grand. The band then drops out as Friesen offers a probing and virtuosic solo on the upright bass. Jacobs follows with an exhilarating conga solo before the whole band returns to the percolating theme.
Next up is "Open the Door," a quirky blues which Curson strangely subtitled "Dwackdi Mun Fudalick" in his own jargon (Cursonese?). For fans of straight up hard bop, this one is the real deal. Curson's playing here is typically adventurous as he easily doubles the tempo over the bluesy changes. Brignola follows with an extended bari solo of blowtorch intensity and Bird-like facility, then Woods chips in a burning solo of his own on alto sax. McNeely also contributes a soulful piano solo before the three horns exchange blistering eights on this swaggering hard bop romp. Curson's moody ballad "Song of the Lonely," which appeared on his 1976 India Navigation release Ted Curson and Co. and was originally dedicated to the great hard bop tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin, showcases the trumpeter's lyrical side before he unleashes with a flurry of double-timed notes at the crescendo of his solo. McNeely also shines here in the subdued piano trio setting.
They close with the bluesy "Reava's Waltz," which originally appeared on Curson's 1964 album Flip Top on the Arista/Freedom label (reissued in 1994 on Black Lion as Tears for Dolphy). This boisterous 3/4 vehicle, reminiscent of something from the Mingus songbook, falls right between the hard bop and free bop worlds and features some of the most potent solos of the set by Curson, Woods and Brignola. McCall also kicks in a riveting drum solo on this invigorating number, bringing this Carnegie Hall set to a rousing conclusion.
Four months after this Newport Jazz Festival appearance, Curson would go into the studio to record with this same unit on Jubilant Power for the Inner City label. Chris Woods would later play with the Count Basie band during the mid-1980s. Nick Brignola would subsequently play with Phil Woods while also leading his own small groups through the '80s and to this day. Jim McNeely went on to stints with the Mel Lewis Orchestra (1978-1984), Stan Getz's Quartet (1981-1985) and the Phil Woods Quintet. Since 1996, he has been the pianist and composer in residence for the Vanguard Orchestra. David Friesen went on to sideman work with Mal Waldron, Duke Jordan, Paul Horn, Ricky Ford, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Garrett and Denny Zeitlin while also recording several albums as a leader. Sam Jacobs subsequently played on numerous sessions for the likes of Kurtis Blow, Run-D.M.C. and other hip-hop artists. But on this June day in 1976, they were all truly on one accord in this superb (and brilliantly recorded) set of scintillating hard bop.
-Written by Bill Milkowski