This Side of Strayhorn
Terell Stafford's resume is long and his credentials impressive, but often when reading biogaphies of the trumpet player, one is still led to see his stature as a musician in the context of his time in band Horizons (with Bobby Watson, Victor Lewis, and Shirley Scott) or his gigs with McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, and Herbie Mann, to name a few. Perhaps the man is modest; that's good to know. But for the past fifteen years, Stafford has been putting out albums of ever-increasing quality. This year's Stafford release, This Side of Strayhorn, is a masterful combination of players, arrangements, and materials, and should finally establish Terell Stafford as a name that stands alone.
Though certainly never forgotten as an essential writing and arranging partner of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn's reputation has been further burnished by the recent PBS special on his life, as well as books by David Hadju and Walter Van de Leur. On This Side of Strayhorn, the composer's work is given a surprisingly full voice in the setting of a small group. With arrangements by pianist Bruce Barth, production by Grammy-winner John Clayton on the excellent MaxJazz label, and joined in the group by Barth, Tim Warfied on saxes, Dana Hall on drums, and Peter Washington on bass, Stafford is already miles ahead on this recording.
As if resuming the playing of Strayhorn's work after some long the delay, the tune "Raincheck" begins with a vamp on open voicings that, after a few bars, settles tightly and confidently into the main theme, with Stafford and Warfield locked into some wonderfully harmonized playing. After a bright and brisk run through the head, Stafford takes over with a well-formed solo that is as good an introduction to his rich, clear tone as any you'll hear. As will happen for most of the album, Warfield and Barth are given almost equal time to solo. And, as they will for much of the album, Washington holds down the bottom of the tune with a strong sense of melody, all the while touching base with Hall's understated but effective approach on drums.
Stafford flexes his Latin jazz chops on "Smada," a groovy samba with a simple chord structure that really encourages all three soloists – Warfeld, Stafford, and Barth – to stretch our for a couple of minutes at a time, with each artist building in intensity chorus after chorus. "My Little Brown Book" finds Stafford employing the straight mute and Hall the brushes for a soft take on this whimsical song. One of the essential Strayhorn tunes, "Lush Life," is played not-too-slowly but rubato throughout, understated and loose so as to take advantage of this familar ballad. "Lush Life," done this way, still has surprises to offer.
"Multicolored Blue" is a delightful throwback, with Stafford working the plunger mute in all its gutbucket glory, turning the tune into a salty conversation with Warfield's tenor as both players find plenty of speakeasy smoke and sawdust in each bar. Stafford impresses fully with his technical command of the instrument, producing sounds out of his horn that brass players rarely use any more. In an album of outstanding music, this is my favorite tune.
The next three tunes all have their pleasures. "UMMG," another familiar Strayhorn tune, is taken with a lighter and slightly slower approach. "Day Dream" is a solid but fanicful exploration of the song's structure. "Lana Turner"is an appropriately sexy midtempo number that still can evoke the world of the ingenue-turned-femme-fatale. The album's closer, "Johnny Come Lately," is particularly interesting in how it breaks down the song in terms of melody, harmony, and rhythm –in a manner strikingly reminiscient of Miles Davis' second great quintet.
What's most impressive, in the end, with This Side of Strayhorn is the sheer versatility demonstrated by Stafford and his group in playing these challenging tunes across a wide range of styles. Confident in practically every note he blows, humble enough to let others do what they do best, generous in sharing in stage with his fellow musicians, Terell Stafford makes it known in no uncertain terms that his time has come, his voice is clear, and his future is brigher than ever.
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