Saturday: Terell Stafford plays Billy Strayhorn



Terell Stafford
  • Terell Stafford
This weekend the Music Institute of Chicago presents a tribute to the great Billy Strayhorn, best known for his contributions (as composer and arranger) to the songbook of Duke Ellington. The festivities kick off Friday with a screening of a recently updated version of Robert Levi's Emmy-winning documentary Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, followed by a panel discussion with the filmmaker, scholar Henry Louis Gates, Strayhorn biographer David Hadju, trumpeter Terell Stafford, and WBEZ broadcaster Richard Steele. On Saturday Stafford leads his excellent quintet through a program of Strayhorn tunes, and on Sunday afternoon he'll play with MIC faculty, reedist Victor Goines, singer Tammy McCann, and members of Northwestern University's jazz ensemble. All events take place in Evanston at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 W. Chicago.

Last year Stafford released the superb This Side of Strayhorn (MaxJazz), an album that showcases the vitality and durability of Strayhorn's music, cut with Stafford's working band—saxophonist Tim Warfield, pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Peter Washington, and Chicago drummer Dana Hall, all of whom will perform on Saturday. Barth wrote resourceful, elegant arrangements of nine Strayhorn pieces to suit a hard-bop approach, retaining their sophisticated melodic shapes but stripping them down to create vehicles for the band's rhythmically elastic, harmonically succinct playing. The album includes a version of the ubiquitous "Lush Life," but most of the nine tunes are less familiar, such as "Lana Turner," which Ellington never recorded, and "Multicolored Blue."

Stafford's playing contains traces of the styles of many trumpeters from the 50s heyday of hard bop, including Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, and he's equally comfortable on soft-toned ballads and hard-swinging burners. He also taps into the vocabulary of plunger-mute tricks and earthy growls made famous by Ellington trumpeters such as Bubber Miley and Ray Nance. Stafford's virtuosity is hardly the whole show, though: the band really cooks as an ensemble, with Warfield's tenor playing off the trumpet and the nimble rhythm section carving deep grooves. This band plays mainstream hard-bop as well as any on the planet, and with a program focused on Strayhorn's music the material will be top-notch.

Below you can check out the group's take on "Multicolored Blue."

UPDATE: Rodney Whitaker will be filling on bass for Washington, and Friday's panel no longer includes Gates. In his place is Alyce Claerbaut, president of Billy Strayhorn Songs Inc.

photo: Jimmy Ryan

Today's playlist:

Elin Larsson Group, Live and Alive (no label)
New Order, Movement (Rhino/Warner Brothers)
Bill Evans Trio, Moon Beams (Riverside/OJC)
Luzmila Carpio, The Song of the Earth and Stars (Accords Croises)
Alarm Will Sound, A/rhythmia (Nonesuch)

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