THE CURTIS COUNCE QUINTET-EXPLORING THE FUTURE.

THE CURTIS COUNCE QUINTET-EXPLORING THE FUTURE.

One of jazz’s best kept secrets is hard bop, double bassist Curtis Counce. He may not have enjoyed the longevity of many of his contemporaries, but was one of the leading lights of West Coast jazz. Curtis played alongside Teddy Charles, Shelly Manne, Lyle Murphy and Clifford Brown. Then in 1956, Curtis moved from sideman to centre-stage, forming The Curtis Counce Quintet. They released just four albums between 1957 and 1958. The Curtis Counce Quintet’s final album was the inventive and innovative, Exploring The Future, which was recently rereleased by Boplicity, an imprint of Ace Records. Five years after the release of Exploring The Future, Curtis Counce died aged just thirty-six. West Coast jazz had lost one of its stalwarts. Fifty years after his death, his music is being introduced to a new audience. However, what about the man behind the music? That’s who I’ll tell you about, before I tell you about Exploring The Future.

Curtis Counce was born In Kansas City, in the Midwest. From an early age, it was apparent that Curtis would end up being a musician. He was a gifted musician, who played violin and tuba before he first clapped eyes on a double bass. Straight away, Curtis knew this was the instrument for him. Indeed, it was the double bass Curtis played when he headed out on the road aged just sixteen.

Aged sixteen, Curtis was playing with the Nat Towles Band in Ohama. That was a tantalizing taste of what life was like as a professional musician. Curtis was hooked. From their he became a session music. He picked up session work wherever he could. While he enjoyed that, Ohama was hardly jazz central. So he headed to Los Angeles.

Now living and working in Los Angeles, Curtis become a member of Johnny Otis’ band. Johnny was a legendary bandleader, one who had exacting standards. That gave Curtis a good grounding when he made recording debut in 1946. Curtis was unfazed about shared a studio with jazz greats Charlie Parker and Lester Young. People started to take notice of Curtis, and soon, he was the go-to-guy for anyone looking for a double bass player.

Among the artists he accompanied, were the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Max Roach, Teddy Charles and the Clifford Brown Group. All these legendary musicians wanted Curtis’ bluesy sound. Unique, it was evocative and emotive, painting pictures. With just a few notes, Curtis could change your mood. All was going well for Curtis until 1949, when Miles Davis released one of his landmark albums.

Never has an album had a better title than Birth Of The Cool. It gave birth to the cool jazz sound. Jazz was at a crossroads. Musicians were either members of the cool school or disciples of bebop. Curtis, wisely, kept his options open. Rather than throw in his lot with either group, he kept a foot in both camps. He was a talented and versatile player, so whether it was cool jazz or bebop, Curtis could play it. That worked in his favor. Right up until 1956, Curtis was busy as a sideman. Then he decided to take centre-stage.

In 1956 Curtis formed The Curtis Counce Quintet. The initial lineup featured drummer Frank Butler, pianist Carl Perkins, trumpeter Jack Sheldon, saxophonist Harold Land. With such a multitalented lineup, surprisingly, their 1957 debut album received rave reviews. You Get More Bounce With Curtis Counce was released on the Contemporary label, but sales proved disappointing. It was the age old problem, sales didn’t match the record company’s expectations. After such good reviews, they thought the album would’ve fared better. It didn’t. A blistering set of hard bop, at least, You Get More Bounce With Curtis Counce got the Quintet noticed. Things would surely get better?

Later in 1957, Curtis released his sophomore album Landslide. It was also released on Contemporary. Curtis it seemed had chosen his band well. They all pitched in with ideas and songs. Sadly, success still eluded the Quintet. Record sales were disappointing and sales didn’t reflect their undoubted talent.

Given record sales were disappointing, they toured the West Coast and they toured hard, honing their sound. Soon, they were a tight unit. Even Harold Land, the least experienced member of the band shawn like a star in waiting. The only problem was, the East Coast, West Coast rivalry. This resulted in bands not heading out on the road. West Coast groups like the Quintet didn’t set foot on the East Coast. It was territorial and proprietorial. ironically, jazz lovers lost out. For the rest of 1957, concentrated on playing live. The in 1958, just like 1957, the Quintet released two albums.

History repeated itself in 1958. The Curtis Counce Quintet released two album within the year. The first was Sonority. It was their last release on Contemporary. Just like their two previous albums, sales proved disappointing. Again, the sales didn’t reflect the quality of music. For Curtis and the rest of the Quintet, it must have been both disappointing and frustration. Here they were, releasing some inventive music, yet people were neither buying nor hearing it. Following Sonority, the Quintet and Contemporary parted company. Next stop for The Curtis Counce Quintet was the Dooto label, where they’d release their final album Exploring The Future.

As recording of Exploring The Future began, the Quintet had lost two members. Pianist Carl Perkins had tragically died of a drug overdose and trumpeter Jack Sheldon left the Quintet. Their replacements were pianist Elmo Hope and trumpeter Rolf Ericson. They were more than capable replacements. Elmo is seen as one of the greatest bebop players, while Rolf Ericson’s playing is fast, fluid and accurate. Both players added something new to what was essentially The Curtis Counce Quintet Mk. II.

Exploring The Future saw Elmo Hope play an important part in the album. He wrote four of the eight songs on Exploring The Future, So Nice, Into Orbit, Race For Space and The Countdown. Dootsie Williams who founded Dooto, had been a trumpeter, songwriter and bandleader. His contribution was Exploring The Future. Along with Denzil Best’s Move, Earl Brent and Matt Dennis’ Angel Eyes plus Ira and George Gershwin’s Someone To Watch Over Me, these eight tracks became Exploring The Future, a somewhat ironic title. 

Rather than moving forward and releasing an album of innovative, progressive music, Exploring The Future saw the Quintet revisit their familiar hard bop sound. They’d perfected this during their first three albums and were among the finest practitioners of the hard bop sound. However, Exploring The Future saw The Curtis Counce Quintet with two new members. Would this affect the quality of music on , Exploring The Future? That’s what I’ll now tell you.

So Nice opens The Curtis Counce Quintet’s fourth album Exploring The Future. Bursting into life, the horns join the piano while the drums are played with brushes. Curtis’ bass provides the heartbeat, powering the arrangement along. Soon, it’s time for Rolf Ericson to deliver his first solo. He doesn’t disappoint, producing a breathtaking display of power, speed and accuracy. The rest of the band play behind him, before saxophonist Harold Land steps up. As if inspired he unleashes a blistering, rasping solo. From there, Elmo Hope takes centre-stage unleashing a fluid piano solo. He’s then joined by Curtis. They feed off each other. From there, the rest of the Quintet enjoy their moment in the sun, as they enjoy Exploring The Future.

Angel Eyes is very different from the previous track. A truly beautiful track, it has a late night, wistful sound. Rolf’s piano sets the scene, for the heartbreaking sound of the horns. Ralph’s trumpet gives way to Harold Land’s saxophone. Emotion and sadness are omnipresent. They take centre-stage, where they quite rightly belong. Each take turns at tugging at your heartstrings, before the song reaches its heartbreaking, melancholy high. 

Into The Orbit sees Rolf piano join forces with the horns. Punchy, sharp bursts of horns grab your attention, before a virtuoso performance from Rolf. This seems to result in the Quintet upping their game. It’s like a game daring do. Anything you can do, I can do better. Horns are blown with more power and passion. There’s an urgency in Harold and Ralph’s playing. Rasping and growling their way through the track, they throw down the gauntlet. Meanwhile, Curtis bass provides the heartbeat. Although he enjoys his moment in the sun, he seems quite content to allow the rest of his band to take turns in outdoing each other. After all, the harder they try, the better they play. Proof of this is Into The Orbit.

Rather than Move, this track should be called explode. That’s what happens. Move explodes into life. Drums and horns take charge. What follows is a mesmeric performance. The star of the show is drummer Frank Butler. He produces a breathtaking performance. A mixture of power and speed, it’s as if he feels left out and wants to shine. This he does and never misses a beat. With thirty-seconds to go, the horns come charging in, but good as they are, Frank Butler’s better. 

Race For Space has a jaunty introduction. Piano and drums briefly, take the track in the direction of free jazz. They leave space within the arrangement, which is akin to a dramatic pause. Then it’s all change. The tempo increases and another blistering slice of hard bop explodes into life. Horns to the fore, they’re punchy and dramatic. Behind them, drummer Frank Butler and pianist Elmo Hope dramatically fills in the gaps. Curtis bass powers the arrangement. His finger flying up and down the fretboard. Things hot up when the solos are unleashed. Again, everyone seems to be trying to outdo each other. In doing so, they play their part a storming, dramatic and blistering example of hard bop.

Someone To Watch Over Me was written by George and Ira Gershwin. It allows us another opportunity to hear another side of the Quintet. Horns bray, producing a needy cry. Having set the scene, Frank plays the drums with brushes and Curtis tenderly plucks thoughtfully at his bass. Elmo’s deliberate and pensive piano playing is a like a paean or plaintive cry for Someone To Watch Over Me. 

Elmo’s piano and drums rolls asks a series of question as Exploring The Future unfolds. It’s another mid-tempo track, one that sees the Quintet play to their strengths. Featuring a series of poignant chord changes, the Quintet quickly shift through the gears. They’re equally at home playing together, or when they embark on solo. As for the solos, Ralph’s trumpet solo is a show stealer. The rest of the group play around him, exploring the subtleties and nuances of the track. Not to be outdone, the other newcomer, Elmo produces another of his trademark solos, where he more than proves his worth. 

Closing Exploring The Future is The Countdown. It’s the perfect track to close the album. There’s something about the track, that if this closed a set, you wouldn’t be disappointed. The arrangement meanders along, managing somehow, to sound both melancholy and hopeful. Elmo on piano takes centre-stage while Frank on drums and Curtis on bass provide the heartbeat. Soon, he’s stretching his legs, deciding its time to indulge in some showboating. For that you’re thankful, as what is his finest piano solo on Exploring The Future brings the album to a delicious close. Quite simply, The Countdown is a tantalizing reminder of what jazz music once was. When will we see your likes again?

Exploring The Future proved to be farewell from The Curtis Counce Quintet. It was their final album. While Exploring The Future didn’t exactly offer anything new and innovative from the Quintet, it did find them at their very best. They’d been honing their sound since 1956, and had been playing live constantly. That was the only way to hone their sound and build a following. Sadly, they were restricted in where they could play. The jazz wars were raging. There was a fierce rivalry between the West Coast and East Coast. This meant the East Coast was off-limits for the Quintet. Audiences in the East Coast weren’t fans of the West Coast sound. That meant New York never heard the Quintet live. They might, just have appreciated their sound and  transformed The Curtis Counce Quintet’s career. That wasn’t to be.

The Curtis Counce Quintet released just four albums released between 1957 and 1958. That isn’t a fair reflection on their combined talents. None of the albums sold well. Not even Exploring The Future, with its delicious mixture of blistering hard bop and beautiful ballads. Even the delights of Exploring The Future went undiscovered and unloved. Fifty-five years after its release Exploring The Future has been rereleased by Boplicity, an imprint of Ace Records. Maybe now, a new generation of music lovers will realize what jazz fans missed first time round. Sadly, Curtis Counce never found the fame and fortune he deserved.

Five years after the release of Exploring The Future, Curtis Counce died on 31st July 1963. He was just thirty-seven. Jazz lost one of the stalwarts of West Coast jazz  and one of the best practitioners of hard bop. At least the final album The Curtis Counce Quintet released, Exploring The Future was their best. A delicious fusion of blistering hard bop and beautiful ballads, Exploring The Future was The Curtis Counce Quintet’s finest moment. Standout Tracks: So Nice, Angel Eyes, Someone To Watch Over Me and The Countdown.

THE CURTIS COUNCE QUINTET-EXPLORING THE FUTURE.

 

Exploring The Future

Exploring The Future

Exploring The Future

Exploring The Future

8 Comments

  1. Thanks for this. I saw Stan Kenton play live in my hometown in April 1956. It was virtually the Cuban Fire band with some personnel changes. Curtis was on bass with Mel Lewis, drums and Ralph Blaze, guitar. Stan fought a personal ‘battle’ with the Musicians Union to arrange this tour because of the ban on visiting musicians. He succeeded, but had to drop one trombone and one sax to achieve a like-for-like personnel exchange. (He had two horns and tuba at this time.) The only seats I could afford, as a young student, were the orchestra seats, so I sat immediately behind the five trumpets and could clearly see the scribbled alterations to make the arrangements sound OK with the changed instrumentation. Jack Nimitz and Spencer Sinatra had gone home and their places were taken by British musicians Don Rendell (tenor) and Harry Klein) baritone).

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for your comments. I’m glad that you enjoyed my review and that it brought back good memories. It sounds like a great concert you attended. That was certainly some lineup you saw. That was the golden age of jazz.

      Incidentally, Don Rendell would be a worthy replacement to any lineup. He’s one of Britain’s best tenor saxophonists. As well as American jazz, I’m a big fan of British jazz, which sadly, doesn’t receive the same publicity.

      I hope you’ll keep reading my blog. I’ll be reviewing more jazz in the future. I like to review an eclectic selection of music. Thanks again for your comments.

      Best Wishes,
      Derek.

      • Thanks for that, Derek. There are some fine young players in Britain too, in fact I sometimes think they start where we leave off. Having said that, there’s something about experience and maturity. I have to say that at my age! I still play bass trombone and practise every day. I have to, to keep up. I also write a lot, which is how I earned a living many moons ago. My last few pieces have been for the highly acclaimed Walsall Jazz Orchestra, fronted by my friend of 50 years or so John Hughes. By the way, the discovery of the moment is the Paris Jazz Big Band. They’re unbelievably tight.

        I also saw Don Rendell play in local pubs when he came up to the Midlands, where I live. He was a lay preacher in some denomination or other.

        And what about Dexter Gordon? For me, he was the man!

        Where are you based?

        Regards, JM.

      • Hi John,

        Thanks for your comments.There are many good up and coming jazz musicians in Britain. I like you, preferred the more experienced musicians. Often, their playing has a much more emotive, lived-in sound.

        It’s good that you still play every day and that you write music. Many people forget how important practice and repetition is. That commitment is hugely important in the development of a musician. Musicians don’t become great overnight. It takes time, commitment and practice. Dexter Gordon is an example of that.

        I read about your book The Composer/Arranger. It’s received some excellent reviews and is well thought of amongst musicians, arrangers and composers.

        Writing about music is a very rewarding way of sharing your love of music. I recently wrote the sleeve-notes to a compilation. I write a lengthy review each day. The type of music changes. My tastes are eclectic and range from jazz right through to Afrobeat, hip hop, psychedelia, swing and free jazz. I’ve reviewed about 1,200 albums on this blog.

        It’s a coincidence that you mentioned Don Rendell. I’ve been listening to some of our best British jazz musicians. Don Rendell, Stan Tracey and Tubby Hayes are just three of them. I must review some of their albums in the future.

        You were asking where I’m based. I live in Moffat, Dumfriesshire and have done for nineteen years. It’s a quiet place, but there is a jazz and blues club, which is thriving. That bodes well for the future of jazz.

        Best Wishes,
        Derek.

  2. You probably know that the Mortons came from Dumfries and Galloway. My Scottish roots are pretty tenuous these days to be truthful but I’m fiercely proud of them, nevertheless. I suppose we do everything fiercely. I notice that, wherever you find trouble in history, a Morton is never far away.

    I used to play in and around Birmingham and there were so many excellent Scots around. Andy Taylor, Andy Linton, Harry Moffat… the list goes on and on. I used to joke that I could go into any band room and say ‘hi Andy’ and I’d said hi to everyone there. Wonderful times.

    I deliberately refrained from touting my book out of politeness but it’s interesting that you say its well thought of. The five star ratings and the online testimomials are all genuine and unsolicited. Funnily enough, though, when the question of arranging books crops up on forums etc. nobody ever mentions mine (pause for violins).

    Re your eclectic tastes, I like anything well done from punk to classics.

    Regards, John Morton.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for your comments. Good to hear from you. Dumfries and Galloway is indeed home to the Morton clan. I was reading up on it. This area is your spiritual home.

      Scotland has been fortunate to produce many great musicians. Thankfully, we still are. Just now, we’re producing another generation of talented musicians and songwriters. Many are choosing to stay in Scotland. With the new ways of recording albums, there’s no longer the same need to head south. As a result, we’ve a really thriving music scene.

      Your book The Composer/Arranger is really well thought of. Not just in this country, but all over the world. It’s found its way into some of the top universities and colleges. I’ll try and find a copy and have a read of it.

      Glad to hear you too have eclectic tastes. Someone once told me there was only two kinds of music, good and bad. Which was which, they said is a matter of opinion. I’ve always gone by that. Like you, if it’s good music, I’ll embrace it.

      Thanks again for your comments. Keep in touch.

      Best Wishes,
      Derek.

      • Geography is certainly less important nowadays. I sometimes watch Alba TV from Lewis. I like the Gaelic/Celtic bands. I’ve thought of two more names from the past: Joe Patterson and Brian Rankin. Both top players. If you can give me a bricks-and-mortar address (not necessarily your own) I’ll send you a complimentary copy of the book email: perform@blueyonder.co.uk regards, JM.

      • Dear John,

        Thanks for your message. Good to hear from you. I too am a fan of the Alba TV channel. There’s some really good music on it.

        When you were mentioning Scottish musicians, another I’d meant to mention was Jim Mullen. I last saw him when he was the guitarist in Terry Callier’s band. Jim was the bandleader and held things together. This was during Terry’s comeback. Sadly, we lost Terry earlier this year. Jim was always by his side and is another of Scotland’s unsung heroes.

        Nice to hear from you again. Keep in touch.

        Best Wishes,
        Derek.

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