Long ago, in a land far, far away, few musicians were as shrouded in myth as Billy Strayhorn. He was the tortured soul who wrote "Lush Life," the booze-soaked anthem of loneliness and despair, and the talented but ultimately minor satellite that orbited around Duke Ellington's radiant genius.
Over the last ten or fifteen years, that mythical Billy Strayhorn has all but disappeared. David Hadju's Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, and Walter van de Leur's rigorous study, Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, deepened our understanding of Strayhorn, the man and the composer. Albums by artists such as Joe Henderson, Fred Hersch, Don Braden and Mark Rapp, and the Dutch Jazz Orchestra have opened our ears to the richness and diversity of his output. The man that Wynton Marsalis once called him "a Duke Jr. of sorts" (a remark that no doubt embarrasses him today) has emerged as one of the true giants of twentieth-century music.
Unencumbered by the need to shatter myths or prove a point, Terell Stafford's new CD, This Side of Strayhorn, is a joyful, swinging celebration of Strayhorn's music, ranging from standards, such as "Raincheck" and "U.M.M.G." to rarely heard gems, like "Smada" and "Lana Turner."
This is very much Stafford's album. Even though he's a generous leader, allowing other members of the quintet ample room to solo, he and his trumpet or flugelhorn set the mood on most of the songs. Pianist Bruce Barth's charts are respectful and understated without being simplistic. Neither he nor Stafford sets out to reinvent the wheel. Nothing on the album would surprise Strayhorn, but all of it would probably delight him.
The CD opens with a sunny, up-tempo reading of "Raincheck." Stafford's formidable, fluid chops are immediately on display, as is his fine musical taste. Peter Washington's contributes a singing, melodic bass solo that's a model of concision and expression.
The band delivers a gently Latin take on "Smada," before moving on to "My Little Brown Book," a small masterpiece unto itself. Stafford's muted trumpet and the buttery, Websterian sound of Tim Warfield's tenor conjure up the bluesy feel of Ellington's great bands of the '30s and '40s. Especially in the lower range, Warfield's tone has the warmth and power of a lion's purr. Given enough space, which he has on "Multicolored Blue," it envelops you like a fat lover on a cold night.
"Johnny Come Lately," from Terell Stafford's This Side of Strayhorn.
Stafford is reflective, but not sentimental, as he plays "Lush Life's" melody over quiet chords from Barth's piano. Barth takes the first solo and brightens the mood, banishing all thought of late nights and stale drinks. Stafford then solos in a similar vein, until he ends the tune in the same contemplative mood with which he started. It's an unconventional reading of "Lush Life," and it's utterly convincing.
Other highlights include an appropriately sultry reading of "Lana Turner" and an exuberant, bop-inflected account of "Johnny Come Lately." The latter tune features strong, athletic solos from Barth and drummer Dana Hall and brings the album to a close.
There's an understated elegance -- a kind of restraint -- to all these performances, even when the band is stompin' the blues. I'm sure that I'll be coming back to it for many years to come. Highly recommended.
PS I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the photos that accompany the CD. They're by Jimmy Ryan, and they're gorgeous.
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Terrell Stafford, This Side of Strayhorn, MaxJazz MXJ 408: Terell Stafford, trumpet and flugelhorn; Tim Warfield, soprano and tenor sax; Bruce Barth, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Dana Hall, drums.
Another version of this review will appear in Ellingtonia, the journal of the Duke Ellington Society.