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By John Frederick Moore
The idea for performing a selection of tunes from Philadelphia jazz greats had a rather bureaucratic genesis — a planning session with the music department’s dean. Good thing it was Temple University’s music department, whose faculty is loaded with heavy hitters. That’s why you’ll likely find yourself bopping, dancing and generally vibing along with the Temple Jazz Sextet’s Fly Like the Wind (BCM+D).
The album’s four tracks include compositions by Jimmy Heath, McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane and Lee Morgan. The group features Terell Stafford, the heralded trumpet player and director of jazz studies at Temple’s Boyer College of Music and Dance; tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield; alto saxophonist Dick Oatts; drummer Justin Faulkner; and bassist Mike Boone. Bruce Barth, a member of Stafford’s bands for more than 15 years, played piano and wrote the arrangements.
“Terell gave me carte blanche to choose [the material],” Barth says in a video conference call that also includes Stafford. “Two of the first names that come to mind, of course, are the great John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner.” There were personal connections, as well. Stafford toured extensively with Tyner, and Heath was a mentor and father figure who gave several performances at the university. In 2015, Stafford’s quintet recorded an album of Morgan’s music called Brotherlee Love.
Barth’s arrangements add new dimensions while keeping the spirit of the originals. Coltrane’s classic ballad “Naima” features a tender solo by Boone and a reharmonization of the theme that retains the tune’s inherent beauty. For Morgan’s ultra-funky “Yes I Can, No You Can’t,” Barth added a drum feature for Faulkner and a shout chorus — an element more typically featured in big band arrangements. But it was the title track, a somewhat lesser-known Tyner piece, that proved the most challenging. The original features a string section that adds a sense of majesty to Tyner’s soaring melodies. The sextet’s version maintains the orchestral sweep while paring it down to the essentials.
“Normally, McCoy would build with his incredible playing,” Barth explains. “In this case, I wanted to have the build happen under the ensemble part — partly through repetition, partly through the horn lines changing a little bit. For me that was a challenge, just to have it build and to write things for the horns that weren’t there in the original.”
Stafford laughs at Barth’s modest proclamations that he “didn’t do too much” to the material. But Barth’s skills as an arranger, Stafford says, extend beyond technical matters. “The music he wrote, he wrote it for each one of us and who we are as people. Bruce always finds a way to bring love and soul and joy to the music, and when we play it, that’s what we all feel. We laugh and we have fun, and it’s a community. It’s beautiful.”
“I have relationships with these musicians that go back decades,” Barth says. “At one point I told Terell that I felt like the pencil was moving on its own on the paper. Because when you’re playing for your friends, your colleagues, there’s something very inspiring. Hearing their voices, hearing their sounds, there’s something just very natural that happens.”
Stafford has been Temple’s director of jazz studies for more than 20 years. In that time, he’s raised the profile of the program with the success of the student jazz band. But the opportunity to showcase the faculty with this record has been especially rewarding.
“It’s an honor to say we have great students, and they do great things,” Stafford says. “But don’t forget, these great students come from these great faculty who nurture them, mentor them and work as one. So the students see us working and coming together and respecting one another and having fun, then they want to do that.”
For Stafford, a similar cycle occurs through honoring the music of the city’s jazz greats. “Just hearing the record describes the sound of Philadelphia,” he says. “The soulfulness, the camaraderie, the talent. And I think that talent and that gift has been passed along to the faculty and then passed along to the students.”
Featured photo by Lawrence Sumulong.