Curtis Fuller and Keith Oxman at Dazzle

This past weekend (4/13 and 4/14) I had the pleasure of seeing the Curtis Fuller and Keith Oxman sextet at Dazzle Jazz here in Denver. Having played trombone in groups led by John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Benny Golsam, and Art Blakey, Fuller has been a permanent fixture in the jazz scene since the late 1950s, and at 77 years of age, he is still going strong. He still has that graceful, articulate sound he’s come to be known for. Denver-based co-leader, tenor saxophonist Keith Oxman, while a bit younger than Fuller, is a great, widely known name as well with his sound that shows his respect for the classic sax players of the bop and post-bop movements as well as an ear for innovation. The rhythm section of Ken Walker on bass, drummer Todd Reid, and pianist Chip Stephens are frequent collaborators with Oxman, and Denver trumpeter Al Hood rounded out the sextet. This same group can be heard on Curtis Fuller’s 2010 I Will Tell Her and their upcoming album due this summer. Their chemistry as a group is remarkable. Hood’s bright tone perfectly complement Fuller’s mellifluous sound, and Oxman fully rounds out the horn section’s character, while the rhythm section has learned how to function seamlessly as one and accompany the soloists flawlessly.

In a group filled with outstanding players, the biggest surprise of the night was Chip Stephens, who stole the show both evenings with his ambidextrous runs, impeccable sense of syncopated rhythm, and sheer creativity in improvisation. He incorporated classical technique with avant-garde musical ideas, emphasizing beauty and dissonance with a combination of both open-voiced chords and tone clusters. From the first tune of Friday night’s 9pm set, “The Clan,” which closed the show Saturday, Stephens proved himself to be an unbelievably fabulous listener when comping by tastefully responding to and echoing phrases from each and every soloist, pushing them forward without stealing their spotlight. Stephens also shone in his composition “Chip’s Blues,” which came second Saturday and closed the show Friday, crafting a solo with unexpected twists and turns, covering the entire length of the keyboard wonderfully, featuring a nice little quotation from Duke Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light” on Saturday. On Friday, Stephens also led a rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower,” delightfully emphasizing the flatted fifths and chromatic harmonic movement.

Other great tunes played include the syrupy ballad “Sweetness,” which did not appear in the 9pm set Saturday. “Sweetness” showcased the sweet, smooth trombone tone that Fuller has spent the years perfecting. Hood also sound great on this tune, hitting crisp clear high notes through a Harmon mute (stem removed a la Miles Davis). The centerpiece of each night was the amazing “The Maze” [Fuller’s pun, not mine]. This piece featured Oxman, who exploited the entire range of his saxophone and fluidly maneuvered through different keys, channeling his inner John Coltrane. Between Oxman’s sax presence, Reid’s rolling around his toms with mallets (recreating Elvin’s Jones’s timpani), Stephens’s strong left hand chord voicings, and Walker’s walking bass acting as the bedrock, the audience at Dazzle felt what the audience at Festival Mondial du Jazz Antibes must have felt on July 26, 1965, when the John Coltrane quartet played the seminal A Love Supreme live.

Throughout the night, the simplicity and sophistication of Walker’s bass work was noteworthy; he knew exactly the right note to choose at any given moment and showed incredible clarity with impressive runs during his solos. And, while Reid took a back seat most of the evening, he let loose during his solo on “The Clan,” with some crisp cymbal patterns and wildly fast drumming. For anyone who missed this show, I highly recommend going out to purchase their next album as soon as it is available, to capture some of the magic that happened on stage at Dazzle last weekend.

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