If you love Miles Davis' Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess—both arranged by Gil Evans—then you simply must consider Curtis Fuller's Cabin in the Sky. Recorded over two days in April 1962 for Impulse, the album's orchestrations are on par with both Davis albums and frame Fuller's trombone beautifully. [Pictured above, Curtis Fuller]
Arranged by Manny Albam [pictured above]—one of the finest composer-arrangers of the '50s and '60s, who remains woefully underappreciated—Cabin in the Sky has the same sighing quality and provocative, brassy bombast as the Evans works. They shift, turn, swing and ponder all the way through.
On the album, Fuller (like Davis) is cast as a wandering, vulnerable soloist who must spar with surging sections of the orchestra that hurl all sorts of heavenly bolts at him. From start to finish, Cabin in the Sky is a masterpiece that truly needs fresh critical consideration.
At the time, however, the album was a considered a commercial flop—through no fault of Fuller or Albam. Which is both tragic and baffling, considering its spectacular qualities and the musicians involved. Here's who we're talking about...
On the tracks with strings: Curtis Fuller (tb), Eddie Costa (vib,perc), Hank Jones (p), Barry Galbraith (g), Milt Hinton (b), Osie Johnson (d) and Margaret Ross (harp) along with unknown strings
On the orchestral tracks: Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Al DeRisi and Freddie Hubbard (tp); Curtis Fuller, Bob Brookmeyer, Kai Winding [pictured above] and Wayne Andre (tb); Alan Raph (b-tb) Harvey Phillips (tu) Jimmy Buffington, Ray Alonge, Tony Miranda and Morris Secon (fhr); Eddie Costa (vib); Hank Jones (p); Art Davis (b) and Osie Johnson (d).
As you can see, the date featured many of New York's finest. So what was the problem? To find out, I pulled Ashley Kahn's The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records off the shelf...
"The trombonist remembers that for a session requiring intricate coordination with large ensembles, all went surprisingly well—until extra studio time was requested.
" 'They allowed me three hours with the strings and three hours with the brass. The strings, obviously, went perfect; we got that done, boom, with time to spare. But we needed time to fuse the thing, to connect the strings with the brass... I said, No, [three hours is] kind of harsh, can we have another hour? They raised hell for about a week.'
"The album was completed, released with an evocative double male-female profile by photographer Pete Turner [pictured above], and received positive notice in the jazz press. Yet what ultimately transpired, from Fuller's perspective, was a bitter lesson in record company accounting that can leave an unwary musician with little chance of recouping expenditures, some of which were hidden.
" '[Bob] Thiele said, If we're going to have strings, we're going to go all out. We went from a six-string ensemble to the New York Philharmonic. Well, now, whose budget is it anyway? Then I found out that they would charge me for the ashtrays and the music stands and everything else—you know, this is a big business... [Photo above of Impulse producer Bob Thiele and John Coltrane by Joe Alper]
" 'I think Creed [Taylor] would have run that over with me. But Bob Thiele was, Let's just do this and let's let it be done. But once the album came out, I just don't think that the company was prepared to put the kind of [marketing and promotional] money into it."
If you are unfamiliar with Fuller's Cabin in the Sky, you will be knocked out by the trombonist's conversational style and Manny Albam's extraordinary gift for turning an orchestra into a rip-tide of brassy energy.
JazzWax tracks: Cabin in the Sky has been remastered and is available on CD or as a download here. Tracks 7 through 16 made up the original Cabin in the Sky. Tracks 1 through 6 belong to Soul Trombone, featuring Freddie Hubbard (tp), Curtis Fuller (tb), Jimmy Heath (ts), Cedar Walton (p), Jymie Merritt (b) and Wilbert Granville T. Hogan (d), with Jimmy Cobb replacing Hogan on all tracks except Dear Old Stockholm.
JazzWax pages: Ashley Kahn's The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records is indispensable. You'll find it here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Curtis Fuller's Savannah, from Cabin in the Sky...