Curtis Mayfield beams throughout his 1987 concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. He had plenty of reasons to feel upbeat. His European fans remained devoted, even if his hits were more than a decade old. He fronted a solid touring group, Ice-9, which included his longtime friend, percussionist “Master” Henry Gibson. Most importantly, Mayfield had confidence in knowing that his influential singing and guitar voices, just like his composing skills, remained uniquely his own.
Fittingly, Mayfield’s 1960s and ’70s works, which exemplify the range of his repertoire, comprise the set. Civil rights-era anthems blend with romantic odes, blaxploitation-era funk, a couple of deep cuts and a personalized rendition of “We’ve Only Just Begun” (a Carpenters ballad that also stands out on his classic 1971 album, “Curtis/Live!”). Though these thoughtful pieces contrasted with ephemeral trends in late ’80s pop, the era’s emerging hip-hop artists had already started citing Mayfield as a major inspiration. On this night, Mayfield bundles everything together with the positivity he sang about in his Impressions tune, “It’s All Right.”
Such affability comes across as Mayfield emerges and begins the performance with “Back to the World.” The vocalist’s cheerful delivery belies a darkness, as the 1973 track describes the travails of a soldier returning to the United States from Vietnam. Similarly, the indelible beats of the “Super Fly” material (“Freddie’s Dead,” “Pusherman”) add complexity to the tales of drug abuse that were as relevant in 1987 as they were when the film (and accompanying soundtrack) was released 15 years earlier. Throughout, Mayfield’s main instrument — his high tenor/falsetto voice — remains sharp and enthralling. That tone delivers the sense of yearning as strongly as his words on “We Got to Have Peace” and “People Get Ready.”
He’s self assured in his dexterity: Rather than showcase lengthy solos, he lets notes reverberate and linger.
Mayfield’s guitar technique also sounds incomparable, and this video offers viewers great insight into how he bent strings. He’s self assured in his dexterity: Rather than showcase lengthy solos, he lets notes reverberate and linger (that tone is, essentially, open F# tuning — echoing a piano’s black keys). The band follows his lead. Bassist Lebron Scott’s groove makes the message of “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go” as compelling as it is ominous. Frank “Buzz” Amato’s piano on “Gypsy Woman” adds harmonies that have long been the domain of Mayfield’s colleagues in the Impressions. And with a few suggestive chords, Mayfield seems like he is cajoling Gibson and drummer Lee Goodness to challenge each other.
Gibson, who stands next to Mayfield throughout the set, is as much the singer’s onstage foil as a polyrhythmic force. By this point, the percussionist had been part of Mayfield’s groups for 17 years, even playing on his 1970 solo debut, “Curtis.” This film shows what he brought to the band visually as well as sonically. During “Move on Up,” Gibson takes center stage with an extroverted run that inspires Mayfield to declare, “There’s only one ‘Master’.”
Percussionist “Master” Henry Gibson and Curtis Mayfield display affable chemistry at Montreux in 1987.
One of the concert’s stunning moments arrives quietly, and at the end, as Mayfield sings “When Seasons Change” without his Fender guitar and with Amato as his primary accompanist. Here, Mayfield goes back to his roots in the church. As he hits the upper reaches of his register, his gentle tone conveys a forceful call to hold onto one’s faith in a troubled world.
Three years after this inspiring performance, a horrifying onstage accident in Brooklyn left Mayfield paralyzed for the remainder of his life. But he never gave up, and continued working until shortly before his death in 1999. As his Montreux appearance proves, he was not a man who easily lost hope.