Stefon Harris & Blackout: Evolution

Eric J. Iannelli By

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It takes no time at all to get into Evolution , Stefon Harris’ fifth album for Blue Note, the young vibraphonist’s fourth as leader and his first with his new band. Immediately the music breaks into a sprint. And its appeal is equally as instantaneous. There is no acclimation period, no finger-drumming developmental warm-up, no amusing 30-second intro track. So it’s funny that this disc should bear the title Evolution , by all Darwinian or Lamarckian accounts an excruciatingly slow transformative process. But this, it seems, is the point Harris wants to make. Jazz music—even his own—has been swimming in the ooze of heady theory and generic territory-staking long enough. It’s high time an observable change took place.

Blackout, Harris’ fresh line-up (named thus because they are “about blacking out the narrow views surrounding and constricting the definition of jazz”), is notably well suited to such a task. Don Grolnick’s “Nothing Personal” is transformed into a fleet-footed groove featuring Marc Cary’s soulful keyboard licks, which are at times reminiscent of Baby Face Willette. Harris contributes a radiant vibe line to match that of saxophonist Casey Benjamin. Darryl Hall raps out a tight, thumping funk on his acoustic bass. The energy is clearly that of classic hard bop, but the sound is utterly contemporary.

The Gershwin standard “Summertime” is hazy, soporific, a bit like what you might expect from an electro-lounge DJ. In strictly jazz terms, it’s closer in execution to Charlie Parker’s lolling renditions than Trane’s skittish version of the same from My Favorite Things. Elsewhere we come to a lullaby cover of Sting’s “Until”—a quiet declaration that everything from the popular to the esoteric is fair game in this evolutionary quest. Original compositions include the jaunty, freewheeling title track and “King Tut’s Strut,” something like a ride aboard an ancient Egyptian starship. Particularly striking is the exotic sway of “For Him, For Her,” during which Harris sounds out a slow-burning marimba romance atop the undulating rhythmic structure provided by drummer Terreon Gully and percussionist Pedro Martinez.

Listeners may agree that Evolution is what Harris’ sprawling, overly ambitious The Grand Unification Theory (2003) was trying to be; or perhaps should have been. It’s more than just an issue of titular semantics. Evolution amalgamates a number of widely varying genres and performance styles, yet it sounds so seamless, cohesive and—well, unified—as to be cut from the same bolt of musical cloth. Using an instrumentation that is by no means unusual, it brings together the most distinctive and valuable characteristics found in the whole of jazz and beyond. This was precisely what its predecessor lacked. And if natural selection has its way, this disc will be one worth keeping for posterity.

Track Listing: Nothing Personal; For Him, For Her; Until; Red-Bone, Netti-Bone; A Touch of Grace; Summertime; Blackout; The Lost Ones; King Tut's Strut' Message to Mankind; Montara.

Personnel: Stefon Harris: vibraphone, marimba; Casey Benjamin: alto saxophone (1, 2, 3-7, 9); Marc Cary: Fender Rhodes and keyboards (1, 2, 4-9); Darryl Hall: acoustic bass; Terreon Gully: drums; Anne Drummond: flute and alto flute, Xavier Davis: piano and Fender Rhodes (3, 10); Pedro Martinez: percussion, vocals (9).

Title: Evolution | Year Released: 2004 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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