Stefon Harris & Blackout: Urbanus (2009)
Since emerging in the late 1990s as the vibraphonist of his generation, Stefon Harris has been unfairly tagged as an overly cerebral player for Blue Note projects like the elaborate Grand Unification Theory (2003) and African Tarantella: Dances for Duke (2006). Evolution (Blue Note, 2004), Harris' first with his groove-happy Blackout band, went a long way to demonstrating a capacity for making accessible music with plenty going on under the hood. Following a few years of touringincluding outstanding 2006 performances in Ottawa and MontrealUrbanus ambitiously blends Harris' many concerns; as resonant for heart and body as it is engaging for the mind and spirit.
Even more electric than the fusion-informed Evolution, Urbanus also features altoist Casey Benjamin's vocodera dominant voice in the late Joe Zawinul's Syndicateon Buster Williams' soft ballad, "Christina," and the saxophonist's soulful collaboration with Sameer Gupta, "For You." It's also a primary color on the sweeping, larger ensemble reading of Stevie Wonder's "They Won't Go (When I Go)," seamlessly meshing with clarinets and flutes, but also stepping out as a solo voice.
Bassist Ben Williams and drummer Terreon Gully make a highly flexible and versatile rhythm team. Digging into the urban funk of "Gone"the clever, nearly unrecognizable 11-piece reimagining of George and Ira Gershwin's "Gone Gone Gone" that opens Urbanusand Gully's backbeat-driven "Tanktified," they also navigate the irregularly metered blues of "Shake It For Me" with ease. Sporting a staggered, knotty melody and challenging, "find the one" pulse, brief but impressive solos from pianist Marc Cary and Harris (on marimba) lead to an exciting exchange between Cary, Harris, and Casey (on alto) that's sure to be a live showstopper.
Jackie McLean's appropriately titled "Minor March" juxtaposes a military rhythm with fiery swing, proving that Blackout may target a young audience with its urban vibe, but doesn't forget its roots. Even more egalitarian than Evolution, Harris only contributes two tunes: the painfully lyrical closer "Langston's Lullaby," co-written with Benjamin; and the brief "Blues for Denial," that gradually accelerates into a hard-swinging acoustic feature for Cary before reiterating the theme and gradually putting on the breaks. Still, the vibraphonist's voice is stamped all over the disc, with imaginative, cross-stylistic arrangements and no shortage of high concept soloing, especially on Cary's "The Afterthought," which moves from a high-speed, all-acoustic solo piano section, swinging just as fiercely, to a more contemporary groove for Harris' equally high octane and high concept marimba solo.
If anything, Urbanus goes further in establishing the star power of each of its band members. Harris may be its titular leaderand, no doubt, primary conceptualistbut Urbanus is an impressive group effort on a number of levels. Writing, playing, interaction: Blackout scores high on all counts while, at the same time, delivering a disc with plenty of cross-over potential and all-ages appeal. For Harris, it consolidates his various interests into an integrated whole, dispensing with early criticisms and finally delivering a different kind of unification: intellectually deep and emotionally resonant.
Track Listing: Gone; Christina; Tanktified; Shake It For Me; Minor March; They Won't Go When I Go); The Afterthought; For You; Blues For Denial; Langston's Lullaby.
Personnel: Stefon Harris: vibraphone, marimba, arranger (1, 6, 8, 10); Marc Cary: piano, Fender Rhodes, keyboards; arranger (5); Casey Benjamin: alto saxophone, vocoder, arranger (8); Ben Williams: bass; Terreon Gully: drums; Y.C. Laws: percussion (1); Anna Webber: flute (1, 6, 8, 10); Anne Drummond: alto flute (1, 6, 8, 10); Mark Vinci: clarinet 1 (1, 6, 10), clarinet (8), bass clarinet (3); Sam Ryder: clarinet 2 (1, 6, 10); Jay Rattman: bass clarinet (1, 6, 8, 10); Rigdzin Collins: violin (8).