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Stefon Harris

Marc Carey

Ben Williams

Casey Benjamin

Terreon Gully

photos by
Andrzej (Andre) Pilarczyk

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Picotte Recital Hall – Massry Center for the Arts
College of St. Rose
Albany, NY
April 26, 2009
by J Hunter
Whoever said “Home is where they have to take you in when you show up” assumed that arrival was an unwelcome thing. Stefon Harris got a heroes’ reception from the SRO crowd at the Massry Center, and their fervor only got bigger as the night went on. Most of the crowd may not have known the Albany native personally, but odds are they were all in the same space: Proud of this native son’s musical accomplishments since his professional debut almost 15 years ago, and anxious to see what shape the next chapter in Harris’ career was going to take.
Well, first, that chapter involves Blackout, the phenomenal jazz-fusion outfit that blew the doors off the Williamstown Jazz Festival two years ago; most of this set involved music that will be appearing on Blackout’s new CD later in the year. Showcasing new material is usually done by design, but that was not necessarily the case here: Harris openly admits this band doesn’t do set lists, “and half the stuff we do play, we just make up!” If that’s the case, then the group must have gone through the Vulcan Mind Meld before the show, because every move they made (and they made a lot of moves over the course of 90 minutes) happened instantaneously, and the whole show flowed like water over the falls.
Keyboardist Marc Cary came out alone after the band was introduced, sitting down at the piano and playing a reverent meditation that sounded more suited to Classical music. The piece was “Langston’s Lullabye”, named for the son Harris greeted just seven weeks earlier. (“I’m awake, I’m awake,” Harris assured us.) The band had chosen the tune to get a sense of Picotte Recital Hall, which Harris had never played before. With each band member entering separately and contributing his input, the intrinsic spirituality of “Lullabye” just kept expanding, even as the direction shifted from a spiraling tone poem to a tender ballad. The crowd had to catch its collective breath at the end, but when they got it back, they applauded wildly.
After lauding both the hall and his band members, Harris said, “I don’t know what we’re going to play next… so let’s see.” After a moment he added off-handedly, “Pick an instrument!” The resulting calls came from every area of the seats, because everybody wanted to hear every musician onstage. Harris did a double-take, a look on his face that said, Whoa! Before any consensus could be reached, drummer Terreon “Tank” Gully started laying down a nasty groove that could have worked for jazz or R&B; the rest of the band formed around it to create Jackie McLean’s “Minor March.” Reedman Casey Benjamin tore up the joint while Harris watched, squatting behind his L-shaped vibes/marimba set-up like a hunter waiting for the right moment to strike.
I’d smacked Benjamin around a little in my Williamstown review, if only because I felt he relied too much on effects at that show. While he did use them here and there at CSR, what he mostly laid down was unfiltered, unerring alto sax that brought you out of your seat every time. If Benjamin didn’t get you, Gully would have done the job with his signature rousing drum attack. To his credit, Gully is working to mute his machine-gun sound and add more colors to his palate: He played his solo on “Lullabye” with orange plastic sticks that looked like crossing-guard batons, and he softened another ballad using brushes that might have started their lives as thin straw brooms.
Cary had no problem accessing every color of the rainbow with his enthralling mix of piano, organ, synthesizer, and Fender Rhodes. During the bluesy new tune “Shake for Me”, he sub-referenced “Cheek to Cheek” while Ben Williams laid down fat, phat bass. Harris first saw Williams at an 8th-grade recital; he is currently a few months shy of graduating from Juilliard, and he more than held his own with one of the more righteous jazz bands on the planet. Listen for this young man, because he has got the goods.
Even if you couldn’t hear Harris, just watching him is an experience. The commitment on his face and in his body is astonishing as he flies up and down his kit, using two to four mallets to find the sound he wants. At one point Harris stretched himself almost to the shredding point so he could hit two notes at the same time – the highest note on the vibes, and the lowest note on the marimba. When he handed over one solo to Benjamin, he was obviously drained, almost overcome. But he kept on amazing us, performing blindingly complex solos as the group switched out time signatures like some people go through six-packs.
Harris is not a wunderkind, not any more; this was a man, bursting with talent and creativity, backed by a group that feeds off him as much as he feeds off them. Stefon Harris may not know what he’s going to play when he steps onstage, but one thing is for sure: The sky’s the limit.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.