For this reviewer, my first exposure to 26-year-old vibraphone whiz Stefon Harris came through a hearing of Tim Warfield’s Criss Cross album Whisper in the Midnight. It seemed like a favorable beginning for a musician who was clearly on the rise. Jump forward a few years and Harris would find himself with a major record deal (any young jazz musician about his age could easily digest a Blue Note contract!) and it seemed that his playing was developing right on course. Still, with two Blue Notes currently under his belt, it probably behooves one to catch Harris live, as the records just don’t quite seem to capture the vigor and musical development that he and his band are capable of. Although the modest crowd seemed a bit aloof at times, Harris’ recent show at Ohio State University's Wexner Center was a formidable model of what modern day improvisational music is all about. Supported ever so tastefully and resolutely by drummer Terreon Gully, Harris and crew tore into the original “A Cloud of Red Dust” with pianist Orrin Evans playing Herbie Hancock to Harris’ Bobby Hutcherson. With both a set of vibes and a marimba placed side by side, Harris bounded back and forth between each instrument with the dexterity of an acrobat, meanwhile never missing a note and using the space in his lines brilliantly. As soon as the last bits of sound disappeared into nothingness, the band was on to what had to be one of the hippest arrangements ever of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” With a great vamp, supported by Gully’s heavy backbeat, the melody’s familiar strains were almost lost at first, only to further blossom as the song’s structure emerged. Things then began to simmer for Evans’ expansive, but poorly under-miked, piano solo which then led to a conversation between Harris and Gully, each man anticipating the next move of the other. These guys were all obviously on the same page and then some! A bass feature for Reid Anderson, “Collage” brought the mood down to a ballad tempo which found Gully using his mallets and sizzle cymbals to great effect, Harris all the while creating a down mood of his own, with the dark tones of the marimba proving to be especially seductive. But just in case you got too comfortable, a quick segue would bring on the strains of “No Greater Love,” taken at a speed that would all but annihilate a player of lesser skills.
More funk with a heavy two-and-four would dominate “Things To Come,” again providing the perfect showcase for Gully. In fact, the drummer proved to be just as strong an attraction as Harris’ forays between instruments had become by the set’s end. He was just so damn musical, comping with ease, dealing out the funk, and swinging straight ahead with equal aplomb. Unfortunately, Evans, a pianist and leader of great interest in his own right, had few opportunities to let his creative muse lose and when he was on the spot he could barely be heard above the din of the rest of the group.
Harris’ tribute to inspiration Milt Jackson, penned just following the legend’s recent death, closed out the set, only to be spelled by a quick encore that had the crowd on their feet. Great jazz is about telling a story and communicating musically within a group, two elements that were at the heart of the Harris quartet’s modus operandi. Only one suggestion from me- get this band down on tape while you can; they are really something else!