Terell Stafford at Sweet Rhythm and "New Beginnings"

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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Even one run-through was enough to know it's his strongest CD yet, a veritable pi?ata of goodies
As a courtesy to the hyper-busy, here's the bottom line: the performance was superb, and the CD's a killer. For details, please read on.

June 18, 2003 ~ Terell Stafford's CD release party is at Sweet Rhythm at 8; once Sweet Basil, the cozy club has thrived under new owners since last September. I decide to leave at 5, since driving around the Apple is prone to unpleasant surprises. In fact, just yesterday someone decided to contemplate (or resolve) his marital problems at the top of the Tappan Zee bridge, 280 feet over the Hudson, and they stopped traffic for the three hours it took to get him down. Naturally this clogged every connecting artery like a trainload of bacon grease.

But tonight I made it easily, even found a legal spot on the street, and decided to celebrate with an outdoor cappuccino next door to the club. There I could relax, enjoy my rare parking victory, and contemplate the scene on 7th Avenue South. My view included a chunky brick building with six skeletons on its roof, dressed like extras from Sweeney Todd, they were advertising "Jekyll & Hyde" below, which, according to its marquee, is "a restaurant and social club for explorers and mad scientists." Good thing we have no shortage of either in New York. Two doors down is "Sushi Samba," which I'm unlikely to frequent, since I love Brazil, but don't eat bait.

Anyway... I was nearing the end of my foam when the first clarion notes of Terell's horn rose from Sweet Rhythm, pierced the street noise, and nearly lifted the gloom of the eight-zkillionth rainy day we've had this year. The band was practicing, and I wanted to watch. Sweet Rhythm was locked, its tables empty, but the friendly manager, Richard Okon, let me in. Terell, Mulgrew Miller, Derrick Hodge, Dick Oatts, and Dana Hall were on the stand, tweaking fragments of tunes. (All tweaks should sound like theirs.) I know Terell a little — we've spent some time together on several cruises, where he was part of the wonderful Clayton Brothers Band (John Clayton lovingly calls him "Terr'ble"). Terell impressed me immediately with several things: 1) his astonishing playing, 2) his warmth, sincerity, and good humor, and 3) his insistence on the correct spelling of his name: "ONE are, TWO ells."

I'd just gotten my copy of "New Beginnings" and played it on the ride down. Even one run-through was enough to know it's his strongest CD yet, a veritable piïata of goodies. It's packed with great material, nicely balanced between originals (his own superb three-movement suite), expertly-rendered standards, and innovative takes on traditional tunes, all full of crackling energy. Although I can never get enough of the incomparable Mulgrew Miller, a very satisfying dose is provided here.

When a CD has so many highlights, it's simpler just to say, "Buy it NOW!" — but for the record, some of my favorite moments are the flowing horn trades on "Soft Winds," which defy the laws of physics by managing to be both hot and cool simultaneously; the happy little throwback, "I Don't Wanna be Kissed," with Terell playful on mute; and the stark, moving power of "Selah" (a Biblical reference meaning "to pause and reflect"), with its insistent electric bass and reaching melody perfectly describing intense, life-changing deliberation. Occasionally I get a bit unhinged by this species of free blowfest, but these guys are such consummate pros, you can trust any ride you take with them. "Le Maurier" ["matchmaker"], Terell's tribute to mentor Jon Faddis, is smooth and tuneful, while "Berda's Bounce" is boppily ecstatic. When I met Terell's delightful bride, Roberta, I could well understand his inspiration.

This is the kind of band whose joy in playing is contagious. It was great fun to watch the obvious pleasure of bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Dana Hall.

Label owner Richard McDonnell also had a big grin on his face as he snapped pictures around the room; ïberagent Linda Bramble and dedicated publicist Jana LaSorte were cheerful as well. Aside from the mood-elevating music, I suspect they knew they had a hit on their hands.

I could only stay for the first set, which started in swinging with "The Touch of Your Lips." Next was the imaginative arrangement of "He Knows How Much You Can Bear," which begins with Mulgrew's soulful Gospel intro, then shifts gently into a serene samba. I'm struck as always by Terell's long, golden lines. Jesse Davis and Steve Wilson, who do such fine work on the CD, were not in attendance, but Terell brings up the wonderful Harry Allen for a star turn on "I Don't Want to Be Kissed."

By this point my second martini kicked in, affecting my handwriting, but I'm quite sure they played the brilliant take on "Kumbaya" that blows away all campfire memories of the tune. I also remember when Dick Oatts, channelling Coltrane on soprano, made "wailing" into an understatement. And I know they ended with "Blame it On My Youth," the kind of ballad you can slide into like a warm tub fragrant with lavender.

All told, a wonderful evening, and a must-have CD. And yes, I got caught in a traffic jam on the way home — it was construction rather than a would-be aerialist this time — but the trip was well worth it.

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