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Curtis Amy, soul jazz saxophonistby Howard Mandel
Copyright © 2002 Howard Mandel
Tenor and soprano saxophonist Curtis Amy came out of the classic Texas tenor tradition, and enjoyed considerable success on the west coast not only in a jazz context, but with soul and rock artists, including Ray Charles, The Doors and Carol King. He recorded a number of albums as leader, including Katanga (1963), which features one of only two recorded appearances by the quixotic trumpeter Dupree Bolton.
Howard Mandel writes:
In 1994 I wrote liner notes for Curtis Amy's return to recording, and was deeply impressed with the interview Amy gave me. It is reprinted below, without updating. As far as I know, Peace for Love was Amy's last recording; I never received a copy, to my regret. By the way, Amy's masterpiece Katanga! was originally co-credited to him and trumpeter Dupree Bolton; they perform six tunes, including Bolton's title track and Amy's pieces "Lonely Woman" and "Native Land," with guitarist Ray Crawford, pianist Jack Wilson, bassist Victor Gaskin, and drummer Doug Sides On the album reissue released in 1998 (prepared by Michael Cuscuna), Amy's three compositions "A Soulful Bee, A Soulful Rose," "24 Hour Blues," and "USA" are performed by Amy with trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, valve trombonist Roy Brewster, vibist Roy Ayers, pianist John Houston, bassist George Morrow, and drummer Tony Bazley. Those tunes were originally issued as part of the Pacific Jazz album Way Down.
-- Howard Mandel
Curtis Amy: Peace for Love (Fresh Sounds)
He's back -- Curtis Amy! -- jazz-wise deeper, more expansive and heavier swinging than ever, some 25 years after establishing his name, voice, sound as a Texas tenor saxist who survived the '60s' musical upheavals with blues-drenched phrases and dedicated soul intact.
Five albums in four years with Pacific Jazz. Blues Message and Meetin' Here ventured standards amid tunes Houston-born Amy wrote for himself and trombone, organ, bass and drums. On Groovin' Blue Curtis had a sextet with trumpeter Carmel Jones, vibist Bobby Hutcherson and pianist Frank Strazzeri; Mustang, produced by Joel Dorn for Verve, featured pianist Kenny Barron and drummer Bruno Carr as well as trumpet, 'bone, baritone sax and guitar players. Then came Katanga -- long a collector's item -- for Mainstream.
"That was my last real record," Amy said recently in a mellow tone on the phone from his Los Angeles home, where he lived with soul and gospel-singing wife Merry Clayton. "I located here in '65, when straightahead jazz in New York seemed to be losing its impetus.
"I tried to make the transition with Sounds of Broadway, Sounds of Hollywood, a pop instrumental album. We did 'Sunrise, Sunset' from Fiddler on the Roof, 'A Spoonful of Sugar' from Mary Poppins, and 'Goldfinger.' It was," he says candidly, "syrup."
There's nothing syrupy about Peace for Love, though given the chance it will stick on your CD player. The music goes down smoothly, yet its substance is bracing and tonic. The three horns of Amy's frontline blend in an immediately rich taste; their complex and subtle full flavors unfold gradually and are nourishing far longer than anything merely fleet and sweet. Similarly, the solid compatibility and easy power of Amy's rhythm team keeps rewarding listeners, just as it fed those horns.
At age 67, Amy's come to the casual but distinguished poise of his very contemporary music through decades of professional life, including three years as musical director of Ray Charles' orchestra, many seasons of West Coast tours with the soul greats, and numerous studio sessions in which he conquered the world.
"On the Doors' Soft Parade I had a solo after Jim Morrison at the end of 'Touch Me,'" Amy recalls without immodesty. "I'm all through Carol King's Tapestry, on 'Too Late,' 'Way Over Yonder,' 'So Far Away,' all those songs. I worked with Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell when they came west -- same with Smokey Robinson. I made Lou Rawls' first albums, Black and Blue and Tobacco Road, with Onzy Matthews' big band. Solo'd on nearly every tune.
"I was comfortable in the studio, sure. Oh, Merry and I came to New York several times, doing her show at the Bitter End and different things. . . I was on the Dirty Dancing film soundtrack and record. Merry acted in the tv series Cagney and Lacy in its last year, and was in Maid to Order with Allie Sheedy and Dick Shawn. She's also just released Miracles, a gospel album, and I've got to say she sounds the best she's ever been.
"I never wanted to be thought of as a West Coast jazz player -- not to put West Coast jazz down," he adds quickly. "Texas tenor? Well, that description goes back to when I did things like Blues Message. But West Coast saxophonist as in Wardell Grey and Dexter Gordon, Teddy Edwards and Harold Land? I'll go for that. Dexter and I played together in Onzy's band.
"David Helfant [a lawyer] encouraged me to get into the studio again, so we did this session in two days in mid '93. When we set the date, I sat down and started writing. I brought the ideas, Donn Wyatt worked out their changes. When I called around for musicians, other tunes started to appear.
"Frank Strazzeri had been on my first album for Pacific Jazz, but I hadn't seen him for 20 years when merry and I walked in on his trio at a club out here one Saturday night. We had good memories, and a few days after I saw him he called to tell me Jordi Pujol of Fresh Sounds had come to town and was asking about me. Jordi knew my old albums, and became interested in this one. Oh, yeah, Straz is very active and sounds great on 'Slam,' 'Slow Flow' and his 'Night on the Bayou.' Donn Wyatt plays keyboards on 'Slow Flow,' and piano on 'Illusions,' 'Everything's Cool and 'Peace for Love.'
"Donn lives up the hill from me; he's a neighborhood kid who grew up with my son and was always into music. After school -- he went to Berklee [College of Music, in Boston] -- he came back and got a job in a warehouse. I started advising him, we've worked on little projects. . . He's also worked with Dave Koz, been on the road with Anita Baker and Bill Withers, and was with Robert Townsend's tv show band.
"I've known Steve Huffsteter since he joined Ray Charles' band in 1966, the same time as Merry and me. Periodically I'd hear a tune of Steve's -- one he wrote for Louis Bellson really knocked me out.
"Steve plays flugelhorn on 'Peace for Love' and 'Slow Flow' --I play soprano on 'Peace for Love' and 'Illusions.' Yes, 'Slow Flow' has a Coltrane allusion; he influenced 'Peace for Love,' too. I'm a Trane fan, no doubt about it.
"Steve suggested Bob McChesney, who was a surprise to me and played phenomenally. John B. Williams has been with Horace Silver, on Arsenio Hall's tv show and in Doc Severinson's Tonight Show band. Rob Mullins sent me four tunes to consider and I chose 'Illusions' from it; Ndugu [Chanceler] was on that tape, too. I hadn't had much impression of him before, but he's a master! What he does here isn't his key thing -- but it felt so good, the way he played.
"It was a nice session; nothing forced, not even in rehearsal. That was the concept: no strain, no pushing or pulling, and none ever occurred. We laid it down live-to-two-track, which put some pressure on us, but the music simply jelled. From our first run-through it felt good. I mean, I couldn't tell how it sounded, but the fellows were talking it up so much I thought maybe they were putting me on.
"I guess I knew what I wanted, and what I wanted is what came out. I'm thrilled with the recorded sound. I hadn't heard myself that way for so long that it was a pleasure. This instrumentation's a little different than my earlier albums, but the approach is the same, extending what I was starting to do in the late '60s."
That approach was muscular, straightforward and warmly inviting, and that's how Curtis Amy plays today. He's always dug into the groove and come up with a vibe based on solid instrumental skis and sheer musical follow-through. Happy endings these days being almost as hard to recognize as they are to come by, the return of Curtis Amy, so manly in his security, maturity and well-honed edge, should make lots of jazz fans glad.
Besides, Peace for Love brims with effortless authority, incontestable blues credibility, dramatic narrative turns, rhythmic flow, dynamic ensemble details and intimate soloistic address. Like peace, it's what we want; like love, what we hope to return to -- like both, it offers satisfactions beyond surface pleasure, over and over.
Howard Mandel is a freelance writer living in New York City, and president of the Jazz Journalists Association; his book Future Jazz is coming in May 1999 from Oxford University Press.