With a bounce in his step, Melton Mustafa strode onto the stage of Miami's Joseph Caleb Auditorium. The audience at September's Sunshine Jazz Organization's 25th anniversary gala cheered warmly, as the Liberty City-raised trumpeter and bandleader took his place at the helm of the 17-piece swing machine that bears his name. This was the moment many event attendees had been awaiting. They'd come not only to celebrate the SJO's milestone, but to toast Mustafa's seemingly remarkable rebound from Stage 4 prostate cancer.
During the past year, the 64-year-old trumpeter played sparingly, mostly at benefits to cover medical costs. Then, Mustafa could hardly remain standing. Now, he could hardly keep still. His face and frame had fleshed out. His energy was returning. And no one could have been happier than Mustafa's older brother, Jesse Jones Jr., who plays alto saxophone in Mustafa's big band. "It was very, very emotional," Jones says of witnessing Mustafa's animated performance. "He's definitely my hero."
Mustafa led the ensemble through dynamic tunes he had contributed to the Count Basie Band during his 1984-'92 tenure. As is his habit, he juked to the music, popping his fingers, gesturing extravagantly, even mimicking a samba dancer. Feeling his oats, but not wanting to overtax himself, the trumpeter tendered a couple of bright and snappy solos.
Mustafa's fiery, emotional playing also graces his latest recording, "The Traveling Man," the release of which he'll celebrate Friday, Oct. 26, at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach. Comprising all original tunes, the album boasts an elite rhythm section — pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Essiet Essiet and drummer Victor Lewis — with whom Mustafa played in Bobby Watson's quintet. The session also introduces rising-star saxophonist Patrick Bartley, who was in the 11th grade at Fort Lauderdale's Dillard High School of the Arts in 2010, when he recorded his part. While it took a couple of grueling years to complete the recording, the sparkling results speak for themselves.
Mustafa knew something was amiss before heading to Systems Two Studios in Brooklyn to record "The Traveling Man." Wracked with pain, he was nonetheless determined to make the session. Doctors had yet to diagnose his illness. "I was very weak at the time," Mustafa says, sitting behind the desk in his office at the Fine Arts Building of Florida Memorial University, where he's director of jazz studies. "I didn't know that I had the disease until I came home. I was already at Stage 4 and didn't even know it."
"I remember him telling me, 'I'm feeling real bad,' " says Mustafa's eldest son, saxophonist and educator Melton Rahsaan Mustafa, the executive producer of "The Traveling Man." " 'Let's do this now, because it could get worse.' "
The project took on a sense of urgency. Mustafa the younger pored through file cabinets of his dad's original music. One connotation of the album's title, he explains, relates to Mustafa's globe-hopping stints with the bands of Jaco Pastorius, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Gunther Schuller. The other is metaphorical. " 'The Traveling Man' is the story of somebody going through the trials of life, good and bad," Mustafa Jr. relates. "So I wanted to make sure that I documented it in that way, so that people know that this CD was not just some random selections."
Father and son were also determined to capture Mustafa's writing and playing in a small-band context. "There's a big difference between big-band and small-band improvisation," the elder Mustafa notes. "In the Basie Band, the star is the composition, not the player. You only had a short time to improvise, so you had to make it right the first time. And I wanted to play a solo that the audience would remember, and not blow a whole bunch of notes just to show that I could play fast. Now, if you're playing in a small band, you can show off."
Mustafa's blazing chops have been severely tested. The ravages of his illness and its treatment forced him to set aside his horn for more than a year. Mustafa Jr. was left with an agonizing decision. "I was thinking, 'Well, if my dad never plays again, should I release [the album] in its raw stages, or keep it unreleased?' He basically left it up to me. I decided to hold off, and thank God, he got better and we got a chance to just put the finishing touches on there and release this CD."
Mustafa's solos on "The Traveling Man" are burnished gems, masterfully phrased. His return to such a high level of playing after a long layoff surprised everyone, the trumpeter included. Even when he could barely walk, he transcended physical limits, as during a show last year at FMU. "I counted the band off," Mustafa recalls. "And it came time for my solo, and I jumped on that thing! I said, 'Wait a minute! I'm not supposed to be able to do this!' "
With technique well beyond his years, Coral Springs-raised saxophonist Bartley, now studying at the Manhattan School of Music, makes an impressive splash on "The Traveling Man." Mustafa has so much confidence in the 18-year-old altoist that he includes his image alongside his own on the album cover. "How could anybody play that way in the 11th grade?" he wonders. "But you've got young people like that all over the world now. So anytime I run into young people that can play well ... shoot, man, they need to be showcased."
"The Traveling Man" provides a sterling showcase for Mustafa's musical gifts, as well. "This CD is much different than anything I've done," he says. "A lot of it is mainstream [jazz], and you've got a lot of modal stuff, and a mixture of Afro-Cuban and ballads. ... My improvisation wasn't like I wanted it to be, because of my condition. But I thought I did a decent job, and I hope that people will overlook that aspect of it."
Mustafa's also eager to perform more frequently with his big band. But like the trumpet, a large ensemble is a demanding mistress. Still, he'd love to bring them back into the studio. "I have enough music for two more big-band albums, maybe three," he says. "Maybe four."
Melton Mustafa Quintet
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26
Where: Arts Garage, 180 N.E. First St., Delray Beach
Contact: 561-450-6357 or Artsgarage.org