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Terrell Stafford 7/3

Bernhard Theatre, Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, NY

Tuesday, July 5, 2005

by - J Hunter

There are many reasons to love the Skidmore Jazz Institute's Summer Concert series: The shows are free, the Bernhard Theatre is a wonderfully intimate venue, and the Institute gets some of the best artists playing today, most of whom give at least one Master Class to the students who attend the two-week seminar. But the Terrell Stafford Quintet's show reminded us of another reason to love this series: Sometimes, it gives you another bite at a very tasty apple.

In years past, the series featured an artist or group who also played the Freihofer's Jazz Festival. This was where I saw Stafford two weeks before - first fronting a Gazebo show featuring uber-pianist Mulgrew Miller, then trading solos on the main stage with the McCoy Tyner Trio and the ever-unbelievable Ravi Coltrane. In both cases, I was knocked out. Tuesday's show at Skidmore knocked me flat.

While the groups Stafford played with at Freihofer's were outstanding, to be sure, the Stafford Quintet is a unit, walking through intricate passages and time changes like you or I would walk through a park, and they do it without a second thought or look at each other. It brought to mind Stafford's days with Bobby Watson and Horizon, one of the most bodacious jazz groups of the 90's. In its worst moments, the Stafford Quintet is on a par with Horizon, and those “worst moments” are better than most people's best days.

This is also a brave group of players. Most of Tuesday's set was new music that had only been recorded a few weeks before, and will not be released for some time. The whole band worked off of charts, and Stafford sheepishly admitted he still hadn't come up with a title for the opening number. It takes guts to play stuff you're still woodshedding, but if jazz is all about courage, the Stafford Quintet showed it has more than its share.

Stafford's playing style combines the sophistication of Wynton Marsalis with the force and feeling of Freddie Hubbard. The heavy-set, balding man fired series after series at the roof, eyes squeezed tight with effort, leaving the audience either breathless or whooping with delight. Stafford can be subtle when he has to, but he can go from sensuous ballad to smoking blues in a heartbeat. Tyner has called Stafford “one of the great musicians of our time.” Watching him play, it's hard to argue.

Reedman Tim Warfield, Jr. is the perfect foil for Stafford. A longtime friend and collaborator, Warfield's playing is deep and wide, whether he's on tenor or soprano sax. The Sam Cassell lookalike harmonized perfectly with Stafford when he wasn't serving up an impressive array of chops. Providing contrasting energy was pianist Bruce Barth, who had flown in from Switzerland that same day, and his arms were definitely not tired!

Drummer Dana Hall and bassist Mark Wind backed up Stafford on the Freihofer's Gazebo show, but Skidmore was where they shined. Hall, resplendent in a white suit, bobbed and weaved and hit like a heavyweight, particularly during his own composition, “Paper Trail”. Wind provided a solid bottom, but earned an ovation of his own with a bowing solo on Warfield's “Shake It For Me” that borrowed more from Yo-Yo Ma than Milt Hinton.

The Stafford Quintet recalls a team of acrobats flying higher and higher, making you gasp louder with each trick. For all their talent, they couldn't have succeeded like they did without a bond of love and trust. The Skidmore Jazz Institute teaches their students many lessons, but if that lesson is all they get this year, the Institute will have done its job once again.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.