The preservation of traditional values in jazz has long been at the core of the art form's most bittersweet dichotomy, which is essentially a spin on the age-old idea that even moderate-level progressions in any given field require ideological breakdowns that generally make everyone mad. Miles Davis
, for example, decried this preservation outright, and the jazz community gave him the finger, banishing him to Bill Graham's Fillmore East where they figured his wonky voodoo rock would be of greater use to stoned Steve Miller fans than it would be to the sharp-dressed jazz elite. Wynton Marsalis
, conversely, insisted upon it, and the jazz community gave him a director's job at Lincoln Center and a starring role in a Ken Burns documentary. The chasm between what the people want and what history needs is forever wide, especially when what the people want seems to be the history itself.
Though more silently than it did in tumultuous 1970, this internal struggle rages on, and falling distinctly into the preservationist category is trumpeter Terell Stafford
's This Side of Strayhorn
, that is, the legendary composer/pianist/arranger to whom Stafford's album was conceived as an homage. As the man who spent a half-century serving as Duke Ellington
's artistic foil, Strayhorn's pieces aren't merely timelessthey're the very cornerstones against which time is measured. American music
, never mind jazz, is no less indebted to "Take The 'A' Train" than American politics are to the Revolutionary Warcontained therein, in some form or another, are seeds from which all things after have sprouted.
It's fitting, then, that This Side of Strayhorn
should play like the textbook exercise it is, plumbing the depths of the vintage Ellington aesthetic to extract the colors and emotions that render this music so instantly identifiable even after ninety years. These are Stafford's evocative flugelhorn passages in "My Little Brown Book," the rich tenor melancholia with which saxophonist Tim Warfield
ushers in "Lush Life," and drummer Dana Hall
's staggered accents throughout "Multicolored Blue," which also features a warbled sax intro worthy of Ben Webster
himself. The remaining members of Stafford's quintetpianist Bruce Barth
and bassist Peter Washington
fight for space in the micro sense the same way Ellington's orchestra did in more grandiose fashion; they ricochet off Hall like Ellington and Jimmy Blanton
off Sonny Greer
As academic exercises often go, Stafford's isn't without its share of stiffnessmuch of the songbook is overly familiar, and the soloing is satisfying but safe. But like most tributes, this one's only half-academic. The other half consists of a certain vibrant joy that seems to emerge when a titan immerses himself at length in the work of his heroes, and by way of Stafford's earnest, irony-free genuflection, it's the compositions that have the last word. Even the most traditional artistic values in jazz were predated by directives exempt from academic scrutiny, and even Strayhorn's saddest ballads didn't betray them: Jazz, at its most fundamental, was supposed to be fun. And not even Wynton Marsalis himself can make that feel old-fashioned.