Credited to trombonist Curtis Fuller and pianist Hampton Hawes, With French Horns really hasn’t a definite leader. It shouldn’t bother anyone. In fact, the French horn pioneers Julius Watkins and David Amram play an important and equally fulfilling role as Fuller, Hawes and altoist Sahib Shihab, not only delivering first-rate solo’s but also adding a unique texture to the group’s harmony.
Curtis Fuller (trombone), Sahib Shihab (alto saxophone), Julius Watkins (French horn), David Amram (French horn), Hampton Hawes (piano A1-3, B2, B3), Teddy Charles (piano B1), Addison Farmer (bass), Jerry Segal (drums)
on May 18, 1957 at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey
as ST 8305 in 1964
Roc And Troll
If something like it exists, the session is a ‘prepared’ blowing session, the result of a studio afternoon of relaxed but carefully crafted, intelligent and bluesy playing. (Teddy Charles’s Lyriste is the elegiac, moody exception on the rule) It was recorded as part of the 1957 16inch record Baritones And French Horns, which credited Watkins and Amram as leaders, but was re-released in 1964 by Status, a subsidiary label of Prestige. By then, Fuller and Hawes were better known than Watkins and Amram, which, marketing-wise, explains their co-leadership on this album. (The A-side consisted of a Pepper Adams date including John Coltrane. It was reissued, for obvious but not necessarily honorable reasons, under Coltrane’s name as Dakar in 1963)
All members contribute equally concise statements. Bookended by tasteful, sometimes witty themes, they craft fine-tuned vignettes, remarkably devoid of clichés. Amram’s Five Spot is the most frivolous theme, sure to engender a smile from any kid in the crib, yet very intricate under the surface; a total of a suave, langurous blues line, interpersed with clever, descending and quirky, multi-note alto lines and short-note, claxon-type figures divided between all horns. Even drummer Jerry Segal joins the harmonic party with a snappy snare roll contribution. A question and answer extravaganza which Amram wrote as the outro-theme for a gig he’d had at the legendary Five Spot Café at 5 Cooper Square in the Bowery, NYC.
There are wonderful Sahib Shihab moments, like the elegantly constructed story in Ronnie’s Tune. Shihab, a Parker-influenced player with a distinctive, slight vibrato and alluring, sing-songy lines, also proves to be a master of the entrance; the wail that slowly rises in volume in Ronnie’s Tune and the forward and backward flips of Five Spot are delightful. Hampton Hawes contributes a flawless blend of sparse, well-placed blue notes and interval-filled, fluent bop runs.
From the trombonists that emerged in the slipstream of modern jazz trombone pioneer J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller was one of the major talents in 1957 and already a very sought-after player. He would appear on Coltrane’s instant classic Blue Train a few months later, on September 15. Fuller’s swift double-timing on both Roc & Troll and Five Spot is one aspect of his indisputable craftsmanship.
Watkins is the relatively more outgoing player who delights in edgy little bursts of pleasure; Amram a more cerebral hornist who favors the middle register. Considering the difficulty in adapting French horn to jazz surroundings, both men play exceptionally fluid French horn. Watkins was much in demand, appearing regularly on a variety of labels, notably on Thelonious Monk’s 1954 Prestige recording Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins. Watkins’ debut as a leader on Blue Note in 1955, The Julius Watkins Sextet, is an immaculate cooperation with Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Frank Foster and Hank Mobley. Honestly, I’m less enamoured of The Jazz Modes, the Watkins/Charlie Rouse outfit which recorded for Dawn and Atlantic from 1956 to ’59, which has always sounded too formal to me. David Amram recorded with Kenny Dorham as early as 1953, among others, and developed into a more classical-oriented composer in the early sixties. Composing and conducting has been his much admired trade ever since.
The soft-hued, silky yet husky sound, occasionally sweet-sour as if flavoured with drops of citrus and a tad of cane sugar, is a great asset of Curtis Fuller And Hampton Hawes With French Horns. An intriguing date which deserves wider attention.