Stefon Harris and Blackout Mt. Vernon Country Club
October 15, 2009
Stefon Harris is like one of those small, wiry running backs that gets the job done through finesse and quickness rather than brute force. Indeed, at his concert Thursday night at the Mt. Vernon Country Club, Harris sometimes darted back and forth in front of his vibraphone reaching between the bass clef and treble clef like a ball carrier cutting back to slip through a hole in the line to daylight. Occasionally, he would step back and contemplate his vibraphonethen pounce like a cat attacking some particularly agile prey.
Still only 36, Harris has been recording and leading his own band for 10 years now. During that time, he's created some of the most sophisticated and intricate jazz on the scene. He's a virtuoso on the vibes and marimba and tends to surround himself with like-minded and like-talented players, which results in an absorbing yet swinging sound.
Harris explained his philosophy of jazz early in the program, noting that he's not interested in recreating the jazz of the past. He wants to create music for the present, to reflect what's happening now.
Of course, he and his band's music is not something completely out of left field, or something only heard on other planets; it builds on jazz's past and expands and explores from the music's deep heritage. The opening songand first cut on the band's latest CD Urbanus (Concord Music Group, 2009)was the perfect example. "Gone" is a George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin composition with a new, funky drum foundation. The tune also features some free jazz moments in the middle; something not typically found in most renditions of the Gershwin songbook.
The theme of staying current informed the set list, which was composed exclusively of songs from the latest CD with the exception of an impromptu (and solo) "Summertime" and John Coltrane's "Resolution" from "A Love Supreme" (Impulse!, 1964). The tunes from the new album were a mixture of original compositions from band members and cover tunes, including Stevie Wonder's "They Won't Go (When I Go)" and "Shake It For Me" by Tim Warfield.
Harris' band Blackout has been together for about five years and as a result, the music is much more than "Harris with some backing musicians." The band is truly a unit with significant empathy and interplay. An exception to the longevity is keyboard player Sullivan Fortner, who only joined the band a few weeks ago in place of long time keyboard man Marc Cary. Fortner was handicapped by the lack of an acoustic piano, due to a last minute room change for the concert at the country club that left the grand piano floor above the room where the concert was held. He made do with a Rhodes electric piano and a synthesizer, which he used for a couple solos, programming it for some sounds that were the antithesis of "acoustic" and provided a sharp contrast to the otherwise mostly acoustic ensemble.
Casey Benjamin was the other acoustic exception. Mostly he played alto sax, but occasionally he ran it through a synthesizer. On a couple tunes, including his own composition "For You," he played the Vocorder, an instrument that creates synthesized vocals, somewhat like the '70s rock hits "Rocky Mountain Way" by Joe Walsh and "Do You Feel Like We Do" by Peter Frampton. The effect is similar to a barely audible whisper and required intent listening to discern the lyrics, but worked well on the ballads.
A highlight was drummer Terreon Gully's composition, the slow burning funk number "Tanktified." Gully himself is a highlight with his constant creativity and polyrhythms. Earlier this year, KUVO-FM in Denver broadcast a Dianne Reeves concert live with Gully on drums. Obviously, when backing a vocalist, the drummer has to back off a little to avoid overwhelming the singer. It seemed a little like having an Indy car in your garage that you only drove to church on Sundays. With Blackout, Gully can put the pedal down and challenge the rest of the group to keep up.
The final member of the band, 24-year-old Ben Williams on bass went toe-to-toe with the rest of the group in the virtuoso competition, except he now has certification: the prior weekend, he won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Bass Competition in Washington, D.C., his hometown. Together, he and Gully make one of the more formidable rhythm sections in jazz these days.
Despite Harris' intentions of staying current and in the moment, comparison with players of the past is inevitable. And when it comes to the vibes, Milt Jackson, of course, is the man. Attending a concert of a great vibraphonist isn't just an aural delight, it's visually enthralling as well. Jackson's mallet work was a blur when he put it in high gear. Harris' playing can be like that too with his mallets appearing to be tiny dust storms rolling over the vibes (or marimba). One difference, though, is that Harris tends to make more large leaps across several octaves.
That's where his full body, side-to-side shucks and jives come into play. He sets up his vibraphone directly in front of the audience and his marimba to his leftthat way he can bounce back and forth between them. He also tends to play them simultaneously, lending a deep, rich texture to the band's sound.
Blackout ended the evening with the only song of the set penned by Harris (together with Benjamin), "Langston's Lullaby" dedicated to Harris' 7-month-old son who, in turn, was named after poet Langston Hughes. Often, bands like this one that can play at the speed of light with ease have a tough time slowing down and concentrating on a beautiful melody. Here, they proved they can offer the pretty and pastoral as well as the fast and furious.