With five previous albums on Blue Note, vibraphonist Stefon Harris has proven to be one of the label's most adventurous new artists. More conceptually expansive than many of his generation, Harris has long been interested in extended forms and suite-like structures. His 2003 album, The Grand Unification Theory (Blue Note), dealt with the journey from birth to death as its subject matter. In light of such lofty ambition, reinterpreting selections from Duke Ellington's suites seems natural.
Harris demonstrates adept arranging capabilities with a set of forward-thinking interpretations that are uniquely modern, yet respectful of the source material. With the aid of an instrumentally varied and dynamic chamber ensemble, including trombonist Steve Turre and clarinetist Greg Tardy, Harris is able to update the rhythms and intensify the overall sense of dynamics.
Harris colors these lyrical selections with subtle shadings and nuanced textures, accenting the rich harmonies and fertile beauty of Ellington's writing. He conducts the ensemble with graceful enthusiasm, stepping out as a soloist of buoyant ebullience. The opening trio of selections from Ellington's New Orleans Suite reveal the subtle innovations of Harris' arrangements. By deepening the chiaroscuro, amplifying the rhythmic drive and brightening the harmonies, Harris brings Duke's music swinging into the 21st Century.
Two selections from The Queen's Suite, one of Ellington's most ambitious and rewarding long-form compositions, are delivered with an air of majesty and regal authority, much like the Duke himself. "Sunset and Mocking Bird" is updated with simmering energy, while "The Single Petal of a Rose" features Harris accompanied only by bass and cello. Soloing with tender mellifluousness, Harris transforms Ellington's charming melody into a stately sonata.
Harris' own suite is an epic undertaking, blending seamlessly with the previous selections. Elevating the energy level without sounding at odds with Ellington's suites, the three closing selections from Harris' The Gardner Meditations merge opulent Afro-Cuban rhythms with dulcet reflection.
Stefon Harris proves his mettle as arranger, composer and soloist on this refreshingly optimistic album. African Tarantella offers imaginative new variations on the classics while firmly establishing a new voice.
Personnel: Stefon Harris: vibraphone, marimba; Xavier Davis: piano; Derrick Hodge: bass; Terreon Gully: drums; Anne Drummond: flute; Greg Tardy: clarinet; Steve Turre: trombone; Junah Chung: viola; Louise Dubin: cello.