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Stefon Harris: A Cloud of Red Dust

AAJ Staff By

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Active. Actually, the title is “Sophistry”, but that’s what you hear as this starts spinning – activity. Warm vibes rumble on the bottom as flute and Greg Osby’s alto dance the theme, congas come in – it’s busy and friendly. It shifts to the rhythm section, with sharp comping and dancing cymbals from Alvester Garnett. Stefon Harris begins his solo; the tone is icy, with vibrato kept to a minimum. It reminds me a bit of the underrated Walt Dickerson, but with a little more fervor. He shouts, he darts in short patterns, and his hands blur as the flute returns, playing soft in the background – this really brings out the vibe sound. The percussion starts up, and it’s time for Mulgrew Miller – he’s relaxed where Harris was frantic, and his bit is warmer than his comping was. This warmth returns us to the theme, and things get really busy with Harris and Osby both sounding great as they trade a riff into the fadeout.

Now it’s Harris’ turn for warmth. In a delicious slow intro, he sets up waves of vibrato, then sets sharp brittle notes on top. A little more lyricism, and we are into the fast theme. Osby blows smooth as Miller Morse-codes a chord behind him. Osby’s tone is more gritty on the solo, sliding in little notes all over the place. Miller dances a little, then Harris goes fast, taking the rhythm with him. He sounds as emotional here as he was intellectual on “Sophistry”, doing his magic with single notes, then vibing some thick chords at the end. Things crawl when Miller starts, skittering and pensive; the title; “And This Too Shall Pass”, describes the many moods and shifts in tempo. As the drums prod him, Miller’s solo gains strength, right up to the theme, and there’s a nice little vamp everyone rides at the end.

In between the big numbers, we get several short pieces, moods more than songs. “Nature Music” is the first, piano, bells, and bowed bass meditating around bird sounds. This sets the stage for a stroll "In the Garden of Thought", a leisurely piece with lengthy rolls and much vibrato. Think pretty: lush chords from Jason Moran, a thoughtful soprano sax by Steve Wilson, standing on the shore as Garnett brings in the tide with his cymbals. Steve Turre introduces us to that rare creature, a gentle trombone. Harris gives some more warmth, and we find the tune is a long prelude for June Gardner’s vocal. It’s a powerful voice, combining sweetness and strength. If you thought the opening was pretty – the beauty begins here.

Another percussion interlude; this one is violent and ends with a splash of vibes. The theme of “The Prophet” is introspective and hopeful, stated by Kaoru Watanabe’s peaceful flute, echoed by a nice horn arrangement. The horns finish out the theme, and an alto (Wilson?) gives us hyperactive lines and restless darting; perhaps these are the thoughts of the prophet. Harris is gentle, though no less active; he chords, then rings a strong rhythm. This is a group piece, and the cohesion is great. I love Turre’s riff at the end, which Harris responds to just as it fades.

“Sacred Forest” is a showcase for percussionist Kimati Dinizulu. This might be the best of the short pieces: Harris plays balifone, and the wooden sound makes this come alive. It’s short and hypnotic; it could go on forever. “A Cloud Of Red Dust” is a happy theme, with little hints of “In the Garden of Thought”. Watanabe and Harris do the theme together. Harris sounds joyous on his solo, first using four-note patterns, then he does slides, tremolos, and a single note, repeated insistently as the rhythm gets into it. Miller’s solo also gets a bit funky, as the percussion gives him a Latin pattern. The theme returns, and Harris rides out on yet another great close.

“One String Blues” is lots of things, a one-string harp on the porch getting down with jawharp, shakers and bluesy vibes. It’s a nice mood, and a great change of pace. Turre states the boppish theme of “Jamo”, and his muscular approach is picked up by Harris. He scatters notes, then clusters them, all with a nice shade of blue. Turre’s solo has a great rumply sound, with deep bottom and little whoops here and there. Moran’s solo is his best here; by stages he’s energetic, convoluted, and lush, with a tip of the hat to Cecil Taylor. Turre comes back, and he brings us on home.

“For You Mom and Dad” is sweet and warm, with a theme similar to “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise”. Harris is bright and breezy as the piano chugs beneath; it reminds you of the album dedication: “I told you it would sound like music one day.” While at times Harris sounds restrained, here he comes alive. Wilson’s solo on alto is energetic and gutsy; he even screams a bit at the end. He and Watanabe dance their horns together and Harris joins them as the album reaches its end.

This has quite a bit going for it. The moods keep changing, Harris varies his sound nicely, and the ensemble parts shine. It’s a sound you might hear for some time to come, because it doesn’t “sound like music one day”, it sounds like that now!

Title: A Cloud of Red Dust | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Blue Note Records


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