Trumpeter/bandleader Terell Stafford greeted the audience at Wednesday night's performance of the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia with the hope that they were in good spirits, promising that the Philly-centric big band would "raise whatever you came in with." By the time the orchestra exited with a jaunty bop rendition of "Jingle Bells" two and half hours later, that promise had been more than fulfilled.
Much of the credit belonged to the evening's special guests, the so-called Three Tenors - the Philly jazz version, consisting of saxophonists Jimmy Heath, Bootsie Barnes, and Larry McKenna. While Heath, along with his brothers Percy and Tootie, is an indisputable jazz legend, it's gratifying to see Barnes and McKenna receive some overdue attention on a larger stage, in this case the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.
The three tenor players shared the spotlight throughout the concert's second half, trading solos on Heath's Christmas carol variation "Our Little Town" and a rendition of Charlie Parker's "Steeplechase." WRTI's "BP with the GM," Bob Perkins, introduced them with a recollection of his childhood friendship with the Heath family. He also acknowledged that Bootsie Barnes is "as synonymous with Philadelphia as Billy Penn" and said that while Adolphe Sax may not have invented the saxophone with Larry McKenna in mind, he would realize why he did were he alive to hear McKenna play.
As the three tenors huddled around a single music stand, their alternating turns proved all three to be exemplars of taste and melodicism. Letting three established players go toe-to-toe can lead to pyrotechnic competitiveness, and that may well have happened had this trio met a few decades earlier. But at this stage in their careers, all three are more concerned with making beautiful music than with cutting contests.
Each also got his own solo feature, showcasing the differences in their respective styles. Barnes flexed his burly, sinuous juke-joint muscles on Sonny Rollins' "Sonnymoon for Two." Playing his own arrangement of the standard "Out of Nowhere," McKenna proved that there's no one more eloquent on the horn. And Heath's heartfelt lyricism graced a new arrangement of his tribute to his wife of 55 years (who, he mentioned, he met "around the corner on Waverly Street"), "Mona's Mood."
The concert's first half featured a performance of "Harlem Nutcracker," the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn reimagining of the Tchaikovsky perennial. The swing twist on the holiday classic was anchored by bassist Lee Smith and drummer Chris Beck, and featured standout turns by clarinetist Sean Bailey (making his debut with the JOP) and baritone saxophonist Mark Allen. Frequent Stafford collaborator Tim Warfield's spectacular solo on "Sugar Rum Cherry" moved from dusky breathiness to a bluesy howl, while altoist Dick Oatts played achingly over the closing movement, "Arabesque Cookie."
Less than a year after their premiere gala performance at the Kimmel, the JOP is establishing itself as a highpoint of the local jazz scene under Stafford's leadership. The only drawback is that as he focuses on conducting, he takes few solos of the clarion power that he showed on the tune "Our Little Town." But by acknowledging the contributions of elders like the Three Tenors, and stocking the band with stellar players from the University of the Arts and Temple University faculty and student bodies, he argues forcefully for the past and future of Philly jazz.