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For Your Consideration: Terell Stafford's 'This Side of Strayhorn'

Jon Wertheim
Contributing Writer
jon.wertheim@gmail.com / @rtbjazz

The Nextbop staff is compiling their lists for the best albums of 2011. The first round of our voting ends today, but voting has not yet closed. Here we will do the closest Nextbop does to reviewing albums and attempt to persuade the rest of the staff to change their lists.

2011 has produced some amazing records, and not only in the field of jazz. However, few other genres have seen as much controversy in the last few years as has jazz music. 2011 has turned out to be little different from 2010 or 2009 in this regard: Nicholas Payton has been talking about "Black American Music" and the "slave term" jazz like a trumpet-playing Malcolm X (before he went to Mecca); Wynton Marsalis has added another chapter to the JALC discussion by opening a new club in a luxury hotel in Qatar; and the Robert Glasper school of hip-hop/jazz fusion has continued to stir up conversation about the role of hip-hop and rap in the jazz tradition (a conversation that has been recently and neatly pondered by Patrick Jaranewattananon at NPR's A Blog Supreme).

I'm not here to talk about any of that, or at least not directly. Before I get to my main point, in fact, I'd like to say that while I was disappointed both by Nicholas Payton's way of talking about his hobbyhorse and some of the response to it, I think that the discussion is at least important to have in the back of our minds (although I agree wholeheartedly with Anthony Dean-Harris's recent analysis on this site). I also have decided, as an early New Year's resolution, not to give a flying f*** about JALC's involvement, or lack of it, with the reality of the jazz community of 2011. And, finally, I love hip-hop and think it has every right to influence, and be influenced by, jazz.

With that out of the way, here goes: If I had to advocate one record as the best jazz record of 2011 (and I am, though I'm not being forced to), I would nominate Terell Stafford's This Side Of Strayhorn, released on the MAXJazz label earlier this year.

[Click here to hear the Terell Stafford Quintet set live at the Village Vanguard for NPR earlier this May featuring Terell Stafford on trumpet/flugelhorn, Tim Warfield on saxophones, Bruce Barth on piano, Peter Washington on bass, and Dana Hall on drums]

I'm probably in the minority on this. While listening to the record in the car recently, a friend of mine asked me, "How can a jazz musician get away with making this kind of record? It's not innovative, is it?" Well, is it? The same friend, who is fairly knowledgeable about jazz, guessed "the early 1960s" when quizzed on when This Side Of Strayhorn was released, and I myself spent my first trip through the disc identifying all the influences I heard: Red Garland, Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, Billy Mitchell, Joe Henderson.... The program is all Strayhorn tunes, some well known, some not so much, and all are played energetically and intelligently. But my friend is right. It's not "innovative." There are no hip-hop beats from the drummer, Dana Hall; Bruce Barth, a pianist who recently recorded with Vicente Archer (bassist for Robert Glasper) and Rudy Royston (drummer for JD Allen) stays elegantly traditional; and bassist Peter Washington is, well, Peter Washington. As for the two frontmen, they play beautifully, but without overtones, modality, free tempos, or vamps. If Nicholas Payton says that jazz died in 1959, this could have been made on December 31st of that year.

So why am I advocating This Side Of Strayhorn as the best jazz record of 2011? Because it's jazz - and I don't mean that in a slave-y way, Nic Payon. What I mean is that this is a hardworking record that is fully cognizant of the musical advances of the last sixty years, but chooses to use them sparingly because they don't suit the material. Someone like Gretchen Parlato could easily "innovate" the hell out of these tunes, destroying their lyricism in the process. They weren't mean to be played by Robert Glasper, and to squeeze the lovely square pegs of Strayhorn's songbook into the round holes of a another musical style would be doing them an injustice. Stafford & Co. aren't playing "traditionally" because they want to make a point, the way Wynton Marsalis plays "The Feeling Of Jazz" or some such tune. They are playing Strayhorn the way Strayhorn should be played because that's the way he should be played!

Aside from the musical merit of the record, however, I've been sad to hear fewer and fewer records that come across my desk swing. "Swing" - meaning the swing feel on a ride cymbal or in a bassline, not the airy-something-unnameable often wielded by Marsalis - has become a special effect for jazz records, a classy touch meant to show that a player is connected to the "jazz tradition." Guys come out of Berklee or the New School wanting to sound like Glasper, Parlato, Gerald Clayton, Aaron Parks, or whoever. They listen to Radiohead and Dilla and want to make jazz that uses that, but they also want to establish their jazz credibility, so they play a standard or two in swing and call it good. No. This is a problem. Playing one tune in swing to show you "get it" is just as bad as a young cat ignoring the presence of hip hop on today's jazz scene (like it or not): it misses the point of influence and tradition and diminishes the impact of what musicians do choose to play.

Swing isn't just a box on a jazz checklist, it's a feeling that needs to be internalized by a player, whether that musician is playing "So What" or "Everything In Its Right Place." It's a step that needs to be fully explored, a sound that needs to be fully mastered before moving on. Take Robert Glasper. Listen to him play swing. I love the guy, but he just can't do it. It sounds off, there's something not quite settled about it.

Now take Nicholas Payton. On his record Into The Blue, he has a band that can be as funky and "innovative" as Robert Glasper, but he can also swing like a motherf***er.

So why aren't I advocating Payton? Because unlike Payton, Stafford doesn't play this way and then flip the bird to some white critic. He doesn't play this way and then write diatribes about how great he is and how connected he is to tradition. This Side Of Strayhorn is a record that was made a vessel for the music. Stafford and his band let the music make them, not the other way around. They didn't take it and "innovate" the heck out of it so it would be good and get awards. They didn't make it super retro so it would be obvious that they were trying to make a point. And they didn't make it perfectly and then ruin it by bragging about how perfect it is. They let music that hasn't gotten many recent chances to swing its butt off swing its butt off. They let the music be the music, and it puts Parlato, Clayton, James Farm, Joe Lovano's Us Five, and even Keith Jarrett to shame.

This is the best jazz record of 2011, because it's jazz, and because it lets you hear that for yourself.

Jon Wertheim, a jazz drummer and (somewhat) acclaimed jazz writer, can be found at his jazz blog, Rehearsing The Blues, and on Twitter. He has released one album,
Returning
. The views expressed in this article are his. If you want to complain, you can send him an email at jon.wertheim[at]gmail.com.