Born December 15, 1934 in Detroit, Michigan, Fuller was something of a late bloomer musically, playing baritone horn in high school, and picking up the trombone at age 16. The Motor City in those days produced much more than Fords and Chevys, nurturing an astonishing array of exceptional jazz players. When Fuller was coming up, Milt Jackson and Hank Jones had already left for New York City and were well on their way to international renown. The pool of talent in Detroit still included Pepper Adams, Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Louis Hayes, Elvin and Thad Jones, Yusef Lateef, Hugh Lawson, Sonny Red, and Doug Watkins.
In 1953 he left Detroit for a two-year stint with the U. S. Army, sharpening his skills in a band that also included Cannonball Adderley and Junior Mance among its members. Back in Detroit, Fuller worked with Kenny Burrell, and became a member of Yusef Lateef’s quintet. In April 1957 Lateef’s group journeyed to New York to record two albums for Savoy, and a third produced by Dizzy Gillespie for Verve. Fuller remained in the city, recording with Paul Quinichette, and in less than a year recording four more albums as a leader for Prestige and New Jazz. Also, Blue Note’s Alfred Lion went to hear Fuller perform with Miles Davis at the Café Bohemia, and added the young trombonist to the Blue Note roster, using him on a Clifford Jordan date at the beginning of June, and producing Fuller’s Blue Note debut as a leader - The Opener - on June 16th. Notable sessions with Jimmy Smith and Bud Powell came shortly thereafter, as well as the widely acclaimed Blue Train album with John Coltrane, "And I became the only trombone soloist to record with those three artists, " as Fuller is quoted in Michael Cuscuna’s liner notes for Mosaic’s box-set issue of The Complete Blue Note/United Artists Curtis Fuller Sessions. It must have been a heady time for Fuller; after only eight months in New York, he had recorded six albums as a leader, and worked as a sideman on 15 others. Makes you wonder when he found time to sleep or eat.
At the end of 1958, Benny Golson invited Fuller to take part in a Riverside session that produced The Other Side of Benny Golson album, a blowing date that focused primarily on Golson’s tenor soloing rather than his composing and arranging talents. The two hornmen hit it off so well that they recorded Bluesette under Fuller’s name for Savoy, and three for Prestige under Golson’s name with various rhythm teams in 1959. Then came two Fuller dates for Savoy that added trumpet to the instrumentation, setting the stage for the formation of the Jazztet.
In February 1960 the Jazztet - a sextet co-led by Golson and Art Farmer - created its first album with Fuller on trombone and a young McCoy Tyner making his recording debut at the piano. The group flourished quickly, gaining both critical acclaim and audience support as one of the premier working ensembles of the time. Only a few months into the life of the group both Fuller and Tyner moved on to other projects, but the Jazztet was scarcely forgotten, as the trombonist also took part in the "reunion" version of the band (less Tyner) that played and recorded in the l980s. Recordings as a leader for Warwick, Epic, Smash, and Impulse! came shortly thereafter. In the summer of 1961, Fuller joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, sharing the frontline with Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter in an edition of the Messengers that remains one of the most memorable in a seemingly endless string of outstanding Blakey bands. A quintessential hard bop sextet with Cedar Walton on piano and Jymie Meritt (later Reggie Workman) on bass, they recorded 17 albums through Fuller’s tenure that ended in February 1965. It was a group of truly heavyweight composers, with Fuller, Hubbard, Shorter and Walton contributing to the band’s book Fuller’s pieces tended to bring a modal exoticism to hard bop, often in minor keys, with intriguing rhythmic feels such as the rolling 6/8 of "Sortie." Other notable Fuller compositions from his time with Blakey include "A la Mode," "Arabia," "Bu’s Delight," "The Egyptian," "The High Priest," and "Three Blind Mice."
The rest of the decade found the productive Fuller freelancing around New York -appearing on classic Blue Note sessions with Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, and Hank Mobley - and touring Europe with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1968. In the early 1970s, he tested the fusion waters for awhile, playing hard bop arrangements with electronic instruments in a band that including guitarist Bill Washer and bassist Stanley Clarke, winding down the period in 1973 with the Crankin’ album for Mainstream. Fuller toured with the Count Basie Band from 1975 to 1977, and appears on at least four albums with the Count from this period. Smokin’ on Mainstream, Fire and Filigree on Bee Hive, and Four on the Outside for Timeless closed the decade in fine style in terms of his recordings as a leader.
During 1979 and 1980 he co-led the Giant Bones group with Kai Winding, which recorded an eponymously titled album for Sonet, and also recorded with Slide Hampton’s World of Trombones. More notable work with Blakey, Golson, and Cedar Walton graced the late 1970s and early 1980s as well, and he did three albums with Woody Shaw. He toured Europe regularly with the Timeless All-Stars, and played and recorded with the revamped Jazztet, an association that lasted off and on through the 1990s. His Blues-ette, Pt. 2 album for Savoy in 1993 revisited the oeuvre of his 1959 date for the same company with superb results.
Recently Fuller has experienced some health problems, but at last report was active again and as mellifluous and adroit as ever. On September 14, 1999 he was awarded an honorary degree at the Berklee College of Music, hailed as "one of the most technically gifted and distinctive trombone stylists in jazz" by President Lee Eliot Berk. "Many people have helped me along the way since my childhood in a Jesuit orphanage in Detroit," Fuller stated in his acceptance speech, "I never knew it would culminate in this. I hope your musical ambitions will be fulfilled just like mine have been." He has also served as an instructor at the University of Southern California’s Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance. On November 26, 2001 he made a well-received appearance with Dr. Billy Taylor’s trio at Kennedy Center. The collaborations with Dr. Taylor reach back several years to Jazzmobile - including a European tour - and he also was a guest on Taylor’s NPR program.
Fuller ranks with the premier inheritors of J. J. Johnson’s mantle, as a trombonist who brought the kind of fluency, fluidity, and complete technique common in European concert music to the jazz milieu. Although he has expressed admiration for predecessors such as Trummy Young and Jack Teagarden, it is Johnson’s influence that is most obvious; he has acknowledged the debt on many occasions. His speed and control - replete with stunningly articulated wide interval leaps - are fully the equal of Johnson’s, but he brings even more lyricism and soul to the instrument than his illustrious mentor. According to saxophonist, flutist, composer and arranger Gigi Gryce: "Curtis has buckets and buckets and tons of soul. He has wonderful natural qualities and is bound to mature into a very important voice." Fuller has long been a master of the ballad form. "Billie Holiday once told me," he said, "that once you’re playing, you’re talking to people. So you should edit your speech. Learn the words to the songs and play them."
With only a relatively small percentage of his recordings as a leader in general circulation, it’s gratifying indeed that Timeless has seen fit to reissue Four on the Outside in CD format. Detroit homeboy Pepper Adams joins him in the unusual trombone-baritone saxophone frontline. The combination with Adams generates plenty of heat and light. There’s nothing even remotely unwieldy in the way the baritone saxophonist approaches his sometimes bulky-sounding instrument; like Serge Chaloff before him, Adams soars unencumbered on the large horn, entirely as fleet and mercurial as the best bop altos and tenors. There are points - particularly on Fuller’s delightful "Suite for Kathy," an extended piece that explores a variety of tempos and time signatures - where Adams practically steals the show, sailing through bustling solo passages that crackle with life-affirming energy. Pianist James Williams also has a soul-drenched solo on this fascinating composition. The "Suite.... " is definitely one of the most successful performances on the disc, with the only slightly unsettling portion being the board-fade segue to the concluding ballad tempo theme statement (granted, it’s a very smooth fade.)
The title selection and "Little Dreams" are fine Fuller originals that navigate the time-honored bop to hard bop waters of tunes based on the changes of standards with aplomb. "Hello Young Lovers" - the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic - is a delightfully way up-tempo treatment that kicks off after the theme with an absolutely incendiary Adams solo; Fuller and Williams also glide blithely and energetically through their spots, generating an optimistic glow fully in sync with the title.
"Ballad for Gabe Wells" opens with Fuller a cappella before the rhythm section joins in, and sets a quixotic mood before the tempo picks up for busy, liquid solos from Fuller, Adams and Williams. "Corrida del Torro" appears with no composer credit, so it may very well be an adaptation of a traditional piece, although it is certainly in the "Spanish tinge" vein mined by Fuller on other occasions, quite reminiscent of similar excursions by Gerald Wilson. Drummer John Yarling gets his only solo on this rhythmically ingenious performance.
You won’t hear any elbows sticking out on this recording. It’s some of Fuller’s finest playing captured on tape during this stage of his career, and well worth adding to your collection. Let’s hope that some enterprising entrepreneur manages to get Fire and Filigree - from roughly the same period - back in print soon.