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Stefon Harris: African Tarantella: Dances with Duke

John Kelman By

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Given the number of tribute albums coming out these days, it's refreshing to see an artist reference lesser-known works and take a road less-travelled in terms of approach. Vibraphonist Stefon Harris' African Tarantella enlists a streamlined instrumental configuration to rework excerpts from Duke Ellington's 1970 "The New Orleans Suite" and 1958 "The Queen's Suite," along with parts of his own commissioned "The Garner Meditations." The result is less cerebral than The Grand Unification Theory (Blue Note, 2003), but no less ambitious.

The Grand Unification Theory was a sweeping work stylistically—an impressive disc that left some listeners in the cold after his more approachable Blue Note releases A Cloud of Red Dust (1998) and BlackActionFigure (1999). For the past couple of years he's toured significantly on the heels of Evolution (2004) with his fusion-centric group Blackout, which has found him just as capable of a visceral groove as headier pursuits. African Tarantella, while unequivocally a mainstream record, is the happy marriage of both, making it his strongest effort to date.

When you've got the right people, you can do anything. Drummer Terreon Gully and bassist Derrick Hodge—Harris' Blackout bandmates—have emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, in the past couple of years, to be a highly flexible rhythm team. They're capable of more traditional swing on "Portrait of Wellman Braud," but on "Thanks for the Beautiful Land on the Delta," Gully's light but modernistic backbeat updates Ellington for the new millennium.

That's not, however, the only piece that illustrates Ellington's timeless potential. With a nonet featuring piano, trombone, flute, clarinet, viola and cello, Harris contemporizes Ellington harmonically, creating a distinctive textural alternative to Ellington's horn-heavy arrangements. There are enough instruments here to respect the crux of Ellington's work, but it feels lighter and more open-ended. On "The Single Petal of a Rose" Harris is accompanied only by Hodge, and this simultaneous mix of vibes and marimba makes for one of the disc's high points—respecting the original, but displaying an even greater sense of calm.

Harris' voice is the most dominant on the recording, but there are opportunities for others to shine as well. Greg Tardy's solo on "Thanks for the Beautiful Land on the Delta" positions him as one of the most important clarinettists to emerge since Don Byron. While mostly arranged, Anne Drummond's lush flute dominates Harris' own balladic "Memoirs of a Frozen Summer," while pianist Xavier Davis' solo on the up-tempo but never hurried title track suggests that he is—like many of the players in the ensemble—a relatively young talent worth watching.

The trick to successful homage is reverence that remains personal. Between new arrangements of existing work and his own compositional contributions, Harris has created an album that pays tribute to a clear source of inspiration but also goes to places that Ellington might never have imagined.

Track Listing: Thanks for the Beautiful Land on the Delta; Portrait of Wellman Braid; Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies; Sunset and the Mockingbird; The Single Petal of a Rose; Memoirs of a Frozen Summer; African Tarantella; Dancing Enigma.

Personnel: Stefon Harris: vibraphone, marimba; Xavier Davis: piano; Derrick Hodge: bass; Terreon Gully: drums; Anne Drummond: flute; Greg Tardy: clarinet; Steve Turre: trombone; Jonah Chung: viola; Louise Dublin: cello.

Title: African Tarantella: Dances With Duke | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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