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Arts Desk

Jazz Album of the Week: Temple University Jazz Band’s Tribute to Recently Departed Philly Icons

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Few people mean more to Temple University’s music program than Terell Stafford, director of jazz studies and chair of instrumental studies. And few people meant more to Stafford than Jimmy Heath, the saxophone-playing middle brother in what could very reasonably be called Philadelphia jazz’s first family.

A young Stafford was mentored on and off the bandstand by Heath when they toured together with the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Big Band some 30 years ago, and Heath was the first person the renowned trumpeter and educator called when Temple tapped him to head its jazz program.

“He gave me such great advice,” recalled Stafford in the press release for Without You, No Me, the Temple University Jazz Band’s (TUJB) newly released tribute to Heath, who, at 93, died on the same day in January 2020 that the Stafford-led Owls took top honors at the Jack Rudin Jazz Championship at Lincoln Center.

“‘Just teach yourself,’ he said. ‘Teach who you are. Figure out what you do, how you do it and teach that. And that will be what the students will need.’”

Staying true to that advice has seemingly enabled Stafford to get the best out of his student musicians no matter how challenging or novel the circumstances. TUJB’s last release, late 2020’s Covid Sessions: A Social Call was a triumph of sound engineering and musicianship, a recording of laudable quality made under unprecedented constraints.

Without You, No Me wasn’t quite as challenging logistically; circumstances allowed the 21-piece big band to play and record together, on the same stage—though still separated by 12 feet and plexiglass dividers. The ingenious portable sound rigs—engineered by Temple music technology faculty John Harris and Dr. David Pasbrig—that allowed each student musician to record their part remotely on A Social Call were repurposed this time around to allow two mega-stars with crazy-busy schedules to join the party from afar.

It’s not often you hear a big band chart arranged around a bass player who, in addition to being the featured improvisor, is also tasked with playing the lead melodic part. But not every big band has Christian McBride at their disposal—or a bass-playing arranger. Bassist John Clayton—the big-band-loving half of the celebrated Clayton Brothers, longtime Stafford collaborators—arranged this take on Jimmy McHugh’s “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” especially for this personnel and this recording.

If I hadn’t known it beforehand, there’d be no way for me to tell that McBride wasn’t in the same room with the full orchestra, recording in real time. Even the dynamics, which you’d think would require everyone to be in the same room to really nail, are right on.

McBride’s boyhood buddy and former high school classmate Joey DeFrancesco is the other featured superstar, leading the big band with rich, velvety, and characteristically bouncy improvisations on a version of his “In That Order” arranged for the occasion by Grammy Award-winning pianist Bill Cunliffe.

On the closer, a hip-shaking, rug-burning Larry McKenna arrangement of “Perdido,” DeFrancesco and McBride play together (as it were). What a thrill it must be for the student soloists here—all professional grade, by the way—to solo over top DeFrancesco and McBride accompaniment. That’s the kind of stuff you save to pass on to your grandchildren. But this is clearly different than weekend warriors attending Phillies fantasy camp and getting to play catch with their heroes; these kids are worthy of calling McBride and DeFrancesco colleagues.

One of the students who, over the last couple of TUJB recordings, seems poised to have a bright future is vocalist Danielle Dougherty. She shined in Covid Sessions and might be even better here, first on “Please Don’t Talk About Me,” then on Shirley Scott’s “The Blues Ain’t Nothin’ (But Some Pain).” She sings with sass, smoke, and great intonation; the arrangements, in both cases by young saxophonist and Temple alum Jack St. Clair, really do a nice job amplifying her strengths.

While Without You delivers on many fronts, what it’s really about is celebrating the greats we’ve lost over the past couple of trying years. Jack St. Clair’s “Bootsie” embodies the sound, sensibility, and personality of the late Philly icon and tenor man Bootsie Barnes, while Christian McBride’s “The Wise Old Owl” emulates the legendary teams coached by the man this one honors. Like John Chaney’s Owls, this one is methodical, deliberate, and, at carefully selected times, as intense as Chaney’s vaunted match-up zone and the most memorable of his post-game press conferences. McBride, like Chaney, is expert at picking his spots.

Ultimately, the tunes written for and/or inspired by Heath—saxophonist Todd Bashore’s “Passing of the Torch” and the two arrangements of Heath compositions, “Voice of the Saxophone” and “Without You, No Me”— shine most brightly.

The latter, the album’s title track, is a tune Heath wrote originally for one of his mentors, Dizzy Gillespie. And now Stafford and Co. have played it for Heath, bringing things full circle. This is the kind of thing you simply see more of in jazz than in other communities along the musical spectrum. And it’s why, no matter how often or how loudly people proclaim jazz dead, those reports always turn out to be highly exaggerated.