Trumpeter Terell Stafford founded The Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia in 2014 and in five years they have covered a lot of musical ground with concerts that have represented every era of jazz- From the heyday of the big-bands, bebop, cool, progressive and contemporary compositions.
Every December though they revisit Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn holiday classic The Harlem Nutcracker. Philly Jazz legend Jimmy Heath so admired what Stafford and the JOP orchestra was bringing the piece that they should include it every year. Indeed, it is vintage Ellington magic, with jazz and blues riffs on Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet score. But at key points JOP swings it more like the Basie Band. The year, The Harlem Nutcracker is the opening act ‘A Cole Christmas’ with guest vocalist and pianist Freddy Cole, the latest in the orchestra’s stellar line-up of jazz giants to perform with the orchestra. Stafford said he has wanted to perform with Cole since JOP launched.
“Freddy’s worked with everyone and he is such a legend,” Stafford said in a phone interview earlier this month. “I first worked with him in Dizzy Gillespie’s band. And we’ve done recordings together.” Freddy Cole is among a handful of veteran jazz musicians who emerged after WWII as the great big-band era was coming to an end. Cole whose career spans 65 years and he still records and sings with jazz and symphonic orchestras around the world. Cole is one of the standard-bearers of classic jazz vocal style, with indelible blues and jazz artistry. His brother was jazz titan Nat King Cole, who of course, sang the definite jazz Xmas classic version of Mel Torme’s ‘A Christmas Song.’
Cole is added to the list of jazz virtuosos who have performed with JOP so far including Wynton Marsalis, Jon Faddis and Philly vanguards The Heath Brothers, Larry McKenna, Bootsie Barnes, Benny Golson, Pat Martino. Add to that list Freddy Cole. “Yes, Freddy can do everything and more than anything if any pianist wants to know what the artistry of accompaniment is, they should listen to Freddy sing and accompany himself,” Stafford commented.
Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia continues to refine their sound. They regularly create new works for big-band and re-envisioned arrangements of standard repertoire. Most of the 17 musicians have been on the roster since the beginning and the line-up includes three generations of stellar musicians, mostly Philly-based musician-composers, all with their own separate careers. Trumpeter Brandon Lee is newest musician on the JOP roster that includes such heavyweight players as virtuoso saxophonists Dick Oates and Tim Warfield. Stafford has limited tours with the band and several of the players perform with him as part of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra regularly at their regular Monday night sets at the Village Vanguard.
JOP has limited tours, and their last performance in the Kimmel’s Verizon Hall was the premiere of a jazz adaptation of Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’ with each movement inspired by the Holst’s themes as jazz orchestral jumping off point. The event was in collaboration with NASA scientists and filmmakers, who screened live footage from space and the Mars landrover.
The performance was by all accounts one of the jazz highlights of the musical year in Philly. Stafford said “I have two recordings I really want to do. ‘The Planets’ would be great to record and document,” he said, but his first priority dream is to get all of the guest artists in the studio with the band and “to celebrate Philly jazz legends with all of those artists. “That is my top (recording) priority. I’m going to be optimistic about the funding.”
Meanwhile, Stafford, the virtuoso trumpeter is very much in demand. In JOP concerts he often doesn’t pick up his horn until the last numbers in the show. Yet his solos are as warm and commanding as if he has been performing throughout the concert. Stafford will admit “yes, it’s easier actually to be playing all night when you have a solo. But I get so inspired by just listening to the improvisations of these musicians during our concerts together. It always a joy to listen to their artistry.”
The spotlight will be on Stafford’s solo playing when he performs as solo guest artist in with the 65-piece Philly POPS Orchestra, January 18-21 (www.phillypops.org) Stafford and POPS Musical Director Michael Krajewski are creating an overture homage to Dizzy Gillespie’s music and Stafford will be the led trumpet on tributes to will Philly jazz titans John Coltrane and Lee Morgan. Jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater will join Stafford onstage for a set from the Billie Holiday songbook.