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Performance Space at the Wexner Center For The Arts The Ohio State University Columbus, Ohio
Stefon Harris may be the most athletic jazz vibraphonist performing today. Bobby Hutcherson? Well, he plays with a majestic assuredness as he presides over the instrument's beauty that he releases. Gary Burton? A vision of serenity and courtesy on stage, Burton seems almost statuesqueuntil his arms and hands are unsprung into a dazzling flurry, the vibes applied to unlikely genres like tango or fusion. Terry Gibbs? He puckishly delights in bringing swing references to his rapid-fire riffs and mischief.
Even Lionel Hampton, irrepressible and forever dancing behind the instrument in his heyday, never exhibited the aggressiveness and intensity of attack that Harris pursues. While Hampton scampered and swung, Harris flanks and dodges and visibly considers the musical potential of the instrument before malleting his prey into tuneful alliance.
The Performance Space at Ohio State's Wexner Center approximates a nightclub in its intimacy, informality, darkness, absolute respect for the performer and acoustical rightness, despite its containment within an arts center/museum. On June 8, the Stefon Harris Quartet maximized that Space's effectiveness to wow the audience with not only musical, but also visual, entertainment, albeit unintentional.
As if a single vibraphone offered insufficient width for the Black Action Figure's personal requirements for performance space, the stage crew had set up the vibes and marimba side by sidealmost 12 feet of bars and resonators and frameworkso that Harris (as usual in black slacks and shirt) could leap and lurk and finally burst into angular phrases and suddenly silent pauses that contrasted with ripples of percussive feeling.
While horns joined Harris on his two Blue Note CD'snot to mention some of his New Directions associates like Jason Moran and Greg Osby-at the Wexner Center, he led his own quartet consisting of Orrin Evans on piano, Reid Anderson on bass, and Terreon Gully on drums. Even though Anderson joined the group only two months before, its tightness and mutual support were evident. Visible expressions of pleasure showed as the other three were particularly inspired by a soloist's groove or by the aptness of an idea.
"A Cloud Of Red Dust" started as a hardly perceptible vibed whisper, barely able to whip up even a breeze, and it began to break into a quarter-noted underlying pulse, whenbleet!the emergency exit alarm interrupted the tune with ear-shattering intensity. Recovering from the incipient chaos, the quartet grinningly and freely portrayed the mayhem with immediately inspired, empirically induced improvisation. The alarm ceased as suddenly as it commenced, and "A Cloud Of Red Dust" recovered from the unanticipated extremes of calm soundscapes to technologically glitched confusion.
Only after the group eased again into the red cloud did the impressionistic use of the marimba become clear. Picked up by six microphones, both instruments offered extended and distinct sonic possibilities that Harris wanted to explore. Rather than indulging in "xylophonics" (a term I just now coined to describe the use of the xylophone or marimba for comical or common entertaining effects), Harris enlarged the potential of the instrument in unexpected combination with the vibraphone.
As the "Cloud Of Red Dust" receded, Harris and Evans settled into a sustained vamp as Harris for the first time in the evening used four mallets. A glimmer of a tune emerged, and sure enough, even before the melody was stated, "Summertime" unfolded.
Following up on the glowing reassurance of that tune, the quartet glided into "Collage," from the CD "Black Action Figure." Bassist Anderson provided a sensitive hint of the tune to come by dexterously funneling an expanse of intervallic elaborations down into a concentrated ¾ rhythm before the group came in.
"There Is No Greater Love" seemed at first to be an extended drummed improvisational composition, Gully varying pitches and accenting the theme with cymballed shimmers. Until...
...Gully started a conversation with Harris, Gully questioning and Harris answering, Gully asserting and Harris elaborating. This call-and-response seemed to be played until Harris implied in his response the outlines of the song. The next thing you know, the entire group charged into a spirited chorus that stopped on a dime.
"Of Things To Come" from the CD "Black Action Figure" created a funk rhythm, Evans throbbing a single dissonance and laying out broad chords as Harris' hands crossed and his arms blurred. It was apparent that Harris leads by dancing, bobbing his head and slouching his body to indicate when the others should come in.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.