Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Live Report: Terell Stafford Quintet

I can get rather particular about what I like when it comes to modern jazz groups paying tribute to some bygone era of jazz. If the music seems more devoted to recreating some classic album instead of using the songs to create something new, my skepticism comes on. On the other hand, if a group tips their respective hats to a jazz legend and plays it with the same high level of energy that their predecessors did, they're bound to push it forward and bring new life to it.

That's the way it felt last Saturday at the New Hazlett Theater when Terell ("TEHR-el," as I found out that night) Stafford's quintet came to town. More than anything, this group played like a unit - five guys all on the same wavelength, working together and driving each other. Their two sets leaned heavily on the music of Lee Morgan, but they weren't simply bowing down to the master. Stafford clearly realized that if he is going to play these tunes, he needs to play them with fire. His solos, and those of tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield, Jr. seemed to be lighting a fire under drummer Billy Williams because there were several times that Williams seemed to be adding fills to the music in response to what the horns were playing. During "Mr. Kenyatta," Warfield broke into some Coltrane-like riffs and growls toward the end of his solo, proving that in addition to being a strong melodic player, he can get wild too. Stafford responded by shaping his solo in a way that Sean Jones often does: starting low and subdued and rising up into a frenzy.

Pianist Bruce Barth's name pops up a lot on recording sessions with various people. In person, it's clear why. He shapes chords in a manner that adds a great deal to the music, expanding the melody and tugging on the ear. In a duo version of "Candy" with Stafford, they took the bright melody and turned it into a muted ballad, with Barth adding stride piano, along with touches of Errol Garner and Monk.

The second set opened with Morgan's "Petty Larceny", another raunchy piece of funk, which perhaps not coincidentally found Warfield quoting Hank Mobley's "Funk in the Deep Freeze" during his solo. The tune also let bassist David Wong really stretch out for an impressive solo. When Stafford brought it back together it almost had the feeling of a revival meeting.

Stafford introduced the next song as one of the most beautiful songs he's ever heard, and I was hoping that he'd go back to his Billy Strayhorn tribute and do "Lush Life," which is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Instead they did Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma," which was both lyrical and swinging with a solid Afro-Latin beat, though after the intensity of "Petty Larceny," it was the one time during the night the energy crested. That changed when the group played "Yes I Can, No You Can't" next.

On the way in, I talked with Gail Austin and Mensah Wali of Kente Arts Alliance, who brought the Stafford band to town. The word was that their sound check alone was worth the price of admission. While making announcements between sets, Wali asked the audience to "trust us," meaning that the Alliance (now in it's tenth year) always works hard to present a good show, something worth coming out for. It got me thinking that the people in attendance already trust them but it's the ones who didn't come out who need to keep that in mind. While Stafford might not exactly be a household name, you don't need to know his whole catalog because, in person, he'll blow you away. Following that line, he's also the kind of performer that should make more jazz fans remember Kente Arts down the line, realizing that a show of theirs is worth the investment. With a fall schedule coming up that includes vocalist Rene Marie and drummer Louis Hayes, keep your eyes peeled for their schedule.

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