Trombone legend Curtis Fuller cued the last tune of the night on Saturday, his own “Captain Kidd,” and he cocked his head a bit. He was taut and attentive, like a golfer testing the wind. Then the rhythm section launched into its opening calypso vamp, and Fuller loosened. He started to sway, all fluid turnings of the hip and gentle dips in his shoulders, and an age-old smile crept onto his face.
Fuller’s life has been one of dramatic ups and downs, but he gets a transcendental kind of joy out of playing music. That much was clear at Bohemian Caverns on Saturday, when Fuller’s quintet played two sets of strong, flexible hard bop in the second of a two-night run.
D.C. residents Brian Settles on tenor saxophone, Eric Wheeler on bass and Howard “Kingfish” Franklin on drums joined New York pianist Sharp Radway as Fuller’s sidemen. Though all four of them were decades younger than the trombonist, it’s hard to justify using the cliche that “they kept him young.” The 75-year-old glided up entire octaves and down chromatic runs with a slick, effortless vitality — and his quickness was beyond that of virtually any other trombone player, regardless of age. Fuller was undeniably the central source of energy here: His playing seethed with positivity, motivating his counterparts to perform.
And perform they did. Drawing on tunes by John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, Horace Silver and Fuller himself, as well as a few standards, the quintet wasn’t redrawing any lines or blowing up any genres. But this was a night of boisterous swinging and breathless solos, when the old and young found common ground in tradition and showed that sometimes just the slightest tweaks can keep music like this fresh.
In the climax of the first set, Settles offered a standout solo on “Caravan,” the Ellington classic that Fuller and his partners at Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers ripped apart with a revolutionary rendition in 1962. While Franklin reinterpreted the deep, driving syncopation that Blakey had once used, Settles tore out scraps of the melody and, wailing and insistent, stretched them to three or four times their length. It was an invigorating proclamation from this saxophonist, who typically solos with dauntless subtlety and lets his melodic ideas speak for themselves.
It is no wonder that Settles has made a name for himself in the Big Apple as well as D.C., receiving positive attention from the likes of the New York Times for his work in drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s band, the Hook Up. (That group just released its first album.) Similarly, most jazz cognoscenti in Washington will testify that they’re scared to death of losing Wheeler to the New York scene as well. At Saturday’s show, the young bassist glided between a driving swing feel and playful, quarter-note-triplet runs during his solo on Horace Silver’s soulful “The Preacher.” It was Radway, though, who most defined the rhythm section, blending an obvious affinity for McCoy Tyner (his thundering fifths in the left hand and flurried runs in the right) with strutting block chords à la Red Garland.
Aside from all this, there was an x factor on Saturday night, and that was Fuller’s magnanimous persona. In between good-naturedly ribbing his counterparts and admonishing the audience to “go home and kiss your mother-in-law on the cheek,” the legend took a moment to earnestly quote from Duke Ellington: “We love you madly,” he told listeners.
His good will felt natural, but it wasn’t for lack of adversity. Fuller was orphaned at six; went through childhood as one of just three non-white kids at a large orphanage in Detroit; lost Coltrane — his best friend — and his sister to premature deaths within months of each other; and even gave up on the music business for a few years to work for Chrysler. Today, he’s the only remaining member of the sextet that recorded Coltrane’s Blue Train in 1957, and his wife recently passed away. But as he told the National Endowment for the Arts upon being named an NEA Jazz Master, he finds solace in creating great art. “Music should free our spirit,” he said. “And it will free our mind.”