[JPL] Stefon Harris...NYTimes...10/21/06

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Oct 23 19:09:32 EDT 2006


Zankel Hall

In jazz circles, few things convey studious
sophistication more than the concert music of Duke
Ellington. But if you really want to drive the point
home, try orchestrating that music for a chamber
ensemble, with woodwinds and strings. Then, as a
tribute, compose some music for the same group, in a
similar style. 

The vibraphonist Stefon Harris has done all of these
things, with earnest diligence. His new album is
“African Tarantella: Dances With Duke” (Blue Note),
and it leaves no doubt about his high regard for
Ellington’s softer side. But there is a lulling
quality to some of his more rarefied interpretations;
the album’s strongest moments have a hint of
ruggedness in their rhythm. Mr. Harris’s concert at
Zankel Hall on Wednesday night suggested a similar

Mr. Harris was leading the same musical coterie as on
the album, with one substitution: Mark Vinci, a
clarinetist, filling in for Greg Tardy. Early on, he
warmly introduced each member of the nine-piece
ensemble, including the cellist Louise Dubin and the
violist Junah Chung, who took no solos but made their
presence felt. The core was Mr. Harris’s quartet, with
Xavier Davis on piano, Derrick Hodge on bass and
Terreon Gully on drums. 

Opening with a movement from Ellington’s “New Orleans
Suite,” Mr. Harris introduced the first of numerous
billowy, lightly contrapuntal arrangements. The
ensemble played all of them expertly, providing what
amounted to a cushion for Mr. Harris’s solo exertions.

And exertions they were, in a physical sense. Mr.
Harris hovered over his vibraphone and marimba with
hummingbird movements, hands fluttering in a blur
across the keys. He had arrayed his two instruments at
a right angle, and he vigorously worked the space
between them, darting back and forth with athletic
grace. Sometimes this came across as empty flash, but
when it worked — as on “Portrait of Wellman Braud,”
the sort of bossy minor blues that Mr. Harris and the
trombonist Steve Turre both eat for breakfast — the
effect was bracing.

The evening’s triumph was “African Tarantella,” a
whimsical original tune. With its lilting waltz time
and polyrhythmic interludes, it gave the chamber group
plenty to work with. And when Mr. Harris signaled a
shift into a strolling 4/4 swing, it delivered a
thrill. So did his ensuing solo, which had a sense of
proportion to match its exuberance. 

There was less vitality to Mr. Harris’s arrangements
of “Sunset and the Mocking Bird,” which awkwardly
oscillated between swing and R&B grooves, and “Bourbon
Street Jingling Jollies,” which was weirdly somnolent.
And there was less depth to his solo vibraphone
rendition of “The Single Petal of a Rose.”

Not that Mr. Harris slacked off on that theme. Using
four mallets, he played feathery chords, and then a
series of cascading single notes, which decayed in the
air like curls of smoke. There was sensitivity, and
even virtuosity, in this display. But it felt like an
embroidery: too intricate a pattern, and only on the
surface. NATE CHINEN

Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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