Over the past 15 years I’ve been slowly exploring the universe of music by saxophonist Curtis Amy in a relaxed and off hand manner: finding his albums “out in the wilds” of crate digging at flea markets, thrift shops, garage and estate sales. I’ve found exactly three over the years, but I’ve liked what I have heard and in the back of my head wondered why this great musician wasn’t more well known.
The last Amy album I found several years ago was a Mono edition of his 1963 opus called Kantanga! Just looking at it, I was immediately struck that this was an usual cover design for a jazz album from the West Coast in 1963. Even though my crackly Mono copy was well loved, I played this album numerous times reveling in its musicality and muscle.
There are points, like on the second track, where if you had blindfolded me and told me this was an unreleased John Coltrane track from the period, I might have believed you. I might even dare to say that it kind of pre-echoes the vibe of parts of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme from a couple years later.
When I posted about Kantanga! in certain jazz-centric vinyl collectors forums on social media, I received quite a bit of kudos for finding this rare gem. I never saw another copy of it again.
That is, until the new Tone Poet reissue which I bought immediately. This is a very different sort of reissue for the series and it marks a change I applaud. Instead of spending precious budget on spiffy gatefold covers for albums that were initially single sleeved to begin with, on Kantanga! Universal Music put the money into hiring a writer to give us compelling liner notes which tell the back story of Curtis Amy and how Kantanga! came to be.
I can’t underscore how important this sort of thing is. In these notes you’ll learn about not only Amy’s career (such as how he played on records by The Doors — including one of my favorites, The Soft Parade — and Carole King’s Tapestry!) but also that of Amy’s collaborator on Kantanga!, Dupree Bolton (a dark tale of addictions, jail time and more).
Yet, left behind is this magic. In the words of liner notes writer Thomas Conrad “Katanga! is one of those extraordinary works of art for which nothing prepares us. How could a new band consisting of four guys who never got famous, plus a journeyman bassist (Victor Gasking) and a 21 year old drummer (Doug Sides) go into a studio in Los Angeles on February 3, 1963, nail everything and emerge with a masterpiece?”
And that very neatly sums up what to expect on this forward leaning, New York-feeling West Coast-born rollicking hard bop jazz recording. Dupree Bolton echoes flavors of Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie and many others while Amy brings a beautiful fluidity to his soprano saxophone work here (think more how Coltrane was playing around the time of Giant Steps and “Naima” in particular)
As we’ve come to expect from the Tone Poet releases, the pressing and packaging are exemplary on Kantanga! I can’t tell you how nice it is to hear this recording in a fresh clean pressing. Curtis Amy’s soprano sax sounds warm, sexy, bluesy and enticing against Bolton’s fat round trumpet playing. Listen for the gorgeous unhesitant transitions and interplay between their soloing on “You Do’t Know What Love Is” which feels like the work of a well oiled group that had toured for ages together anticipating each other’s timing intimately, not the work of a one-off session assemblage.
Some of you who may be wondering how the new edition stacks up to my original pressing will be happy to know that the new edition fairs favorably. While it is admittedly an Apples to Oranges scenario — a pristine new stereo to a scratchy old mono — I can hear that the new one captures the general feel of the Pacific Jazz record. This is a different thing than a Rudy Van Gelder recording and producer Richard Bock captured a lot of sweet essence of the Hollywood studio in which it was recorded.
I will say that the new version is much brighter sounding than my original version, which may be as much about the original producers needing to reign things in to keep period record players from jumping out of the grooves as stylistic choices by the mastering engineers and the capabilities of their equipment. I will say that the Mono mix feels at times a bit less discrete than the Stereo for whatever reason that may be.
Anyhow, Kantanga! is one of those no-brainer albums you should pick up when you can. Essential listening.