This Side of Strayhorn
Legend dictates that Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington worked together so closely—ping-ponging ideas at marathon writing sessions—that by the time they’d polished off a new composition neither could remember who’d contributed what to the song. Because he was the more public face of their working relationship, Ellington, throughout their quarter-century as collaborators, received most of the credit, a situation with which Strayhorn seemed comfortable. But for this quintet session, the extraordinary trumpeter and flugelhornist Terell Stafford shines the light back on Strayhorn. He doesn’t so much remove the Ellingtonia from the music as he rethinks how it might have played out had Duke never been involved—and had Strayhorn been writing for a small band in the 21st century.
For the John Clayton-produced project, Stafford deliberately chose mostly lesser-known Strayhorn works—there’s no “Take the ‘A’ Train” here—and put them in the hands of pianist Bruce Barth to arrange. Accordingly, Barth’s piano is at times nearly as prominent as Stafford’s horn, and the two feed off each other beautifully. The moody ballad “Day Dream,” one of only two tracks here that sports an Ellington co-credit, is stripped down to just the two of them, while on the bluesy “My Little Brown Book,” the noirish “Multicolored Blue” and other numbers, Barth offers solid accompaniment for the soloing benefit of Stafford and saxophonist Tim Warfield. When all five players—including the rhythm section of bassist Peter Washington and drummer Dana Hall—are going strong, as on the swinging opener “Raincheck” and the subdued “Lush Life,” the most commonly known piece here, we’re reminded of both Strayhorn’s remarkable composing gift and Stafford’s startling interpretative talent.