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Lush Life: Terell Stafford at An Die Musik, May 16

May 17, 2010
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“Tonight we’re going to be doing the music of Billy Strayhorn,” Terell Stafford told the audience at An Die Musik Sunday night. “Last year, when it was his 100th birthday, we were commissioned by the city of Dayton, Ohio, where he was born, to prepare an album of his music. Bruce Barth did new arrangements of the tunes, and tomorrow morning we’re recording them in Brooklyn.”

Stafford, the University of Maryland, College Park graduate who has recorded with everyone from Diana Krall to Bobby Watson, then picked up his golden trumpet and his bright orange plumber’s helper to play Strayhorn’s “Multi-Colored Blue.” Opening and closing the rubber plunger over the bell of his horn, Stafford coaxed out a series of groans and growls that gave this lively blues number all the “bawdy English” it deserved. Tim Warfield, the taller but equally bald musician to Stafford’s left, followed up with a tenor sax solo that was as sweet and low as the trumpet solo had been funky and high.

The third solo belonged to Barth, who tied new knots into Strayhorn’s tune by overlaying a second melody over the first. The fourth solo belonged to bassist Peter Washington, who proved as inventive with melody as the front line. Then it was back to Stafford, the former Silver Spring resident in the dark suit and bright purple tie, who capped off the number with an unaccompanied solo that expertly combined plunger effects with a virtuoso trumpet cadenza.

Next up was Strayhorn’s best known composition, “Lush Life,” which Stafford and Barth introduced as a gorgeous flugelhorn/piano duet. Dana Hall’s brushes brought in the rest of the band for the full-bodied romance of the refrain.

Less well known but nearly as lovely was “My Little Brown Book,” which contrasted the high-register shouts of Stafford’s trumpet against the low-register burbling of Warfield’s sax. That tune was taken at a relaxed, confident swing tempo, but “Johnny Come Lately” was done as a blistering bebop number. This was Hall’s chance to shine, and he pushed the band with explosive snare-and-cymbal combinations as if he were Max Roach prodding Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker at Toronto’s Massey Hall.

One can only hope that when MaxJazz Records releases Stafford’s album of Strayhorn tunes later this year that it will sound as good as it did at An Die Musik Sunday night in the show produced by Jazzway 6004. In that warm, intimate room, no mics were needed for the horns or drums, and yet Barth’s arrangements sounded perfectly clear and balanced.

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