Vibraphonist Stefon Harris first came to attention on releases by trombonist Steve Turre and, most notably, with eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter's groove-happy Pound for Pound band. Since that time, with an approach that could perhaps be accused of sometimes being a little too cerebral and not visceral enough, Harris has released three fine recordings as a leader. Putting aside loftier ideals and bridging the divide between the intellectual approach of last year's ambitious Grand Unification Theory and his more groove-centric work with Hunter, Harris delivers Evolution with his new group, Blackout. The result is intelligent contemporary jazz that aims for the soul as well as the mind.
It's encouraging to see that people have not forgotten the late pianist/composer/producer Don Grolnick; Harris opens up the program with Grolnick's "Nothing Personal," which first appeared on Michael Brecker's 1986 eponymous release. In Harris' hands the tune becomes a fiery, lightening fast funk number that quickly establishes what this group is all about; memorable melodies, placed in the context of more complicated harmonic invention, all underpinned with a rhythmic approach that incorporates popular influences without actually adopting them.
What is remarkable about the rhythm section, consisting of bassist Darryl Hall and drummer Terreon Gully, is how they navigate difficult passages with multiple time signatures and polyrhythmic depth with confidence and ease. The up-tempo "Red-Bone, Netti-Bone" incorporates Afro-Cuban rhythms in a way that, if analyzed, is highly complex; still, they manage to create a groove that cleverly allows one to forget about such heady things, going straight for the gut. In fact Gully, who has emerged in the last couple of years on recordings by Jacky Terrasson, Lizz Wright and Christian McBride, is a real find: a drummer who is steeped in both the tradition and the not-so-traditional, with a flair for finding and holding the centre of a tune while still being loose enough to be playful.
Harris takes a well-worn standard in "Summertime," reharmonizing and reinventing; it has always been a tune filled with emotion but never has it been so soulful. Throughout the rest of the program of original material, Harris, saxophonist Casey Benjamin and keyboardist Marc Cary stretch out and solo with commitment and intensity. The title track is a combination of mind-numbing ensemble passages and heart-stopping solos; Harris' marimba solo is stunning in its sense of composition.
Like Dave Douglas' The Infinite , Harris manages to create a sound that is contemporary and has cross-over appeal while, at the same time, maintaining a sense of adventure that demands it be taken seriously. There is nothing lightweight about Evolution , although it has a catchiness that sometimes belies its deeper truth. Thought-provoking and moving, it is completely successful in bridging the gap between the head and heart.
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.
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).
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