Even in an art like jazz that abounds with elegant, eloquent improvising, there's a special thrill that comes from hearing a really great trumpeter. Partly it's because the horn is so gut-busting hard to play, what with the lips doing most of the work; a brass virtuoso might well betray the sense of triumph that follows from acquiring wizard technique. So it goes with Terell Stafford, that excellent straightahead trumpeter on Taking Chances: Live at the Dakota (a club in St. Paul).
Stafford's New Beginnings from 2003 was a shade uneven — a cooled-down “Kumbaya”?! — but sported some ear-grabbers. His solos on a stiff-breezy “Soft Winds” and the stop-time blues “Berda's Bounce” were full of appendage-swinging swagger, and he showed a clean, clear flugelhorn tone on “Blame It on My Youth.” Stafford also did a nimble Harmon-muted turn on “I Don't Wanna Be Kissed,” forcing comparison to Miles Davis's classic 1957 version with Gil Evans.
His quintet, however, is the draw on Taking Chances. Stafford's frequent sidekick Tim Warfield plays tenor and soprano, while Bruce Barth on piano joins bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Dana Hall. The leader shows off his growls on a boogaloo blues with more than hint of New Orleans mambo; a tricky stop-time rhythm on “Shake It for Me” suggests Anthony Braxton as much as Jelly Roll Morton. But the band's exuberance doesn't keep them from turning the lamps down low for the ballad “Old Folks.”
Live settings bring out the best in under-heralded Chicagoan Dana Hall, who knows how to prod, and when to bash, and that sometimes oddly-placed big accents are worth more than a whole barrage — though he's good at polyrhythmic pounding too. The last four minutes of “Jesus Loves Me,” an essay in modulating density and dynamics, shows the rhythm trio's synchromesh rapport. They bring it way down, then way up, then way down again, for an ending that relies on a pet Stafford tactic: a near-seamless meld of brass and soprano sax, in unison or close harmony.
Terell Stafford plays old style, new style, way out in front or as a team player. Other modern trumpeters have bigger reputations, but few pack more pleasing wallop.