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Stefon Harris and Lizz Wright at UCLA

Jim Santella By

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Stefon Harris and Lizz Wright in Concert
Royce Hall, UCLA
Los Angeles, California
February 11, 2005

In an exclusive double bill, the famed Royce Hall auditorium on UCLA's main campus in L.A. played host to concerts by Stefon Harris & Blackout as well as Lizz Wright and her trio on the same night. The audience came prepared for thrilling instrumental music in a mainstream jazz vein as well as appealing vocal music that reflected our popular culture. No one went home disappointed.

Stefon Harris began the evening's concert with selections from his Blue Note album, Evolution , which moves through various moods in suite-like fashion, giving impressions both dramatic and sensual. His vibraphone and marimba techniques, highly visible to the audience, carry the animation of the music across the room. Confident and flowing with enthusiasm, the youthful leader captures the essence of each piece in his percussion soliloquies.

Blackout featured alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin, pianist Aaron Goldberg (in his very first gig with this band), bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Terreon Gully. Together, they emphasized cohesive ensemble interplay and mirrored the same kind of solo creativity that Harris demonstrated.

Sting's "Until" and an as-yet untitled ballad brought lyrical refrains to the auditorium. Built in 1929, Royce Hall stands as a hallmark of the institution. Continued upgrades to the hall's acoustics over the years have paid off. Harris and Blackout were able to purr lush melodies from the stage and know that their audience felt it accurately. The performance was genuine, eclectic, and highly personable. Benjamin and Harris contributed memorable passages that left lasting impressions, meant to last for years, or until the next time this band comes to town.

Lizz Wright brought a highly personal vocal force to the concert. No one left at intermission. Everyone wanted to see her and enjoy her unique vocal style. Young and a bit shy on stage, she captured the audience with her selection of emotion-laden songs. As with most gifted artists, her shyness wore off every time the music started. The program included selections from her Verve album, Salt , which introduces the singer's full-bodied contralto voice and emotionally-nuanced phrasing to a wider audience.

Wright's accompaniment was as unique as her singing style. Percussionist Jeffrey Haynes worked out on the electronic cajon (box-drum), as well as with a vast arsenal of hand drums and other tools. Bass guitarist Mark Peterson quietly thumped a contemporary beat that shadowed each selection with a powerful foundation. Acoustic guitarist Mike Moreno brought a delicate touch to the performance that matched the singer's personal vocal delivery. Together, Wright and her accompanists interpreted the program tenderly with passion.

"Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly" opened the program with a New Age texture. "Eternity" followed, to reveal Wright's natural feel for a folk ballad, as she and her band maintained a solemn, heartfelt mood. Even familiar tunes such as "They Can't Take That Away from Me" and "Taste of Honey" oozed slowly and deliberately with a deep, drawn out character. Wright's preference for spirituals and folk ballads colored the performance with a smoky cloud that held her music aloft. She gave her audience an experience that could easily be interpreted as both religious and dreamlike.

"Nature Boy" brought out the exotic feel of the evening's performance and explored the mesmerizing quality Wright has on her audience. Slow and meaningful, her interpretation drove each lyrical passage home with deliberation. The audience loved it through two encores and appreciated her sincere performance.

Two visiting artists and their ensembles gave Los Angeles a rare treat that dispensed with any tinsel and glitz, and awoke instead with heartfelt passion.

Photo Credit
Lizz Wright by Michael Kurgansky
Stefon Harris by Tony Rodgers

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