When trumpeter Terell Stafford conducts the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia the stellar big jazz band he founded, he picks up his horn for some brief solos, but sounding as warm as if he had been playing all night. As a guest soloist for the PhillyPOPS concert this weekend though, Stafford was front and center, reminding his Philly audience what a virtuoso he is.
The POPS 18-piece jazz ensemble, led by conductor Matt Gallagher, was a celebration of jazz Philadelphia connections of composers, singers, and musicians who have made Philly jazz heritage indelible.
Among the many highlights–
Philly based jazz vocalist Alita Moses and the orchestra opened the concert with Cole Porter’s ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ then POPS bandleader trumpeter Matt Gallagher joined her with a trumpet solo and halfway through the tune Stafford, both musicians with distinctive sounds and blowing the roof off of Verizon Hall. Later the orchestra weighed in on new arrangements of jazz standards including an up-tempo arrangement of Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ that sizzled ala the Basie band.
Gallagher and pianist Tim Brey ignited the band with Philly Benny Golson’s ‘Killer Joe.’ And later, Gallagher played the elegiac trumpet solo on Golson’s classic ‘I Remember Clifford’ composed in 1957, in tribute to the great trumpeter Clifford Brown, from Wilmington DE, who died in a car crash in 1956 at age 25.
Alita Moses was back to honor another Philly composer, Jill Scott, and showing her full range with Scott’s jazz-funk tunes ‘Golden’ and ‘A Long Walk.’ The set concluded with the special guest appearance by Christian McBride leading the bass line with Philadelphia University of the Arts freshman Dan McCain, POPS bassist Steve Beskrone in a string transcription of Thelonious Monk’s jazz classic ‘Blue Monk.’
Stafford opened the second set with his jazz orchestral suite in tribute of Dizzy Gillespie. As a young player, Stafford was in Gillespie’s band. Stafford’s medley is a showstopper, even with a few erratic transitional handoffs. Among the standout solo sections drummer Steve Fidyk recalibrating the orchestral drive. Meanwhile, Stafford unleashed the sonic power of the brass, who never drop depth of sound dimension or lose clarity on some of the mach speed tempos.
Stafford then soloed on two of Philly trumpeter Lee Morgan’s versions of ‘Candy’ and ‘You Go To My Head.’ He busted open the simmering cool of ‘Candy’ with a flight of breathless trumpet trills and roulades and a signature of Stafford’s highest register notes, he never flames out. The cool blue of ‘You Go To My Head’ launching, even more, trumpet fireworks by the soloist that indeed, went to everyone’s head.
Next, premier jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater is always a favorite in Philly and she always presents different material. Bridgewater’s soaring scat singing on Ellington’s ‘Cottontail’ was breathtaking and also dipped back to another era with her vampy rendition of ‘You’ll have to swing it Mr. Paganini’ made famous by Ella Fitzgerald. Vocally, Bridgewater is a vocal jazz master in virtually every style, even though she can channel Billie Holiday’s voice, she weighed in with blues belter versions of ‘God Bless the Child’ and ‘Good Morning Heartache.’
The Philly POPS jazz ensemble is not only technically tight, but there is also esprit and immediacy in their playing. This two hour plus concert showed that big-band orchestration is as jazz relevant as ever.