calendar  |  musicians  |  venues  |  concert reviews  |  CD reviews  |  photos  |  features

Stefon Harris

Swyer Theatre @ The Egg
Albany, NY
October 20, 2006

by J Hunter

As far as Stefon Harris was concerned, things couldn't get better. “I'm just at home,” he exulted. “I'm happy!” The Albany native was home - in a theater packed with fans, friends and family. He was also accompanied by a top-notch octet, packing a set of tunes from African Tarantella: Dances with Duke. The new Blue Note release features music either written or inspired by the man Harris calls “my greatest inspiration” - the one and only “Edward “Duke” Ellington.

Far from resting on either his laurels or his hits, Ellington spent the last years of his life developing suites of music in the same vein as 1943's “Black, Brown and Beige.” No stranger to suites himself, Harris has combined his latest work, “The Gardner Meditations”, with music from two of Duke's later works, “New Orleans Suite” and “The Queen's Suites.” Wynton Marsalis introduced Harris to “New Orleans Suite” when they toured together years ago; Harris was enthralled by Ellington's efforts to express the African-American experience on a grand, orchestral scale.

Harris talked about this discovery after the set opener, “Thanks for the Beautiful Land on The Delta” - a “New Orleans Suite” piece Harris recorded just before finding out about the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. The irony only momentarily dimmed Harris' usual boundless enthusiasm, which was kicked up several notches as he talked about Duke, his music, and the musicians that would help Harris perform some of Ellington's final gifts to the world.

Harris' fervor about his players was well founded. Marc Cary and Terreon “Tank” Gully - both members of Harris' phenomenal electric band Blackout - anchored the primary group, ably assisted by 19-year old bassist Eric Travis. Cary played piano on this night, which was fine, since he was too busy drenching us with cascades of beauty and power to ever figure out how to work synthesizer into the mix. Compared to the other times I've seen Gully this year - at Williamstown Jazz with Blackout, at Kingston International Jazz with Joe Locke - his performance here was relatively restrained… taking into account that his solo prior to “Bourbon Street Jinglin' Jollies” would have blown the string/horn section into the first row if his drum kit hadn't had sound glass in front of it.

The strings & horns fought through miking problems to provide a flavorful underlying dynamic that brought zest to every piece they played, be it ballad or blues. The rubber met the road when they soloed, particularly in the case of Steve Turré, who Harris rightly called “the pivotal figure on trombone of our era.” Turré and clarinet player Mark Vinci gave the evening that old-school aesthetic that never left Ellington's music. Down Beat Rising Star Anne Drummond contributed airy flute to the Harris original “Memoirs of a Frozen Summer”, and cellist Louise Dubin teamed with viola player Junah Chung to add color and texture to the set. Dubin's evocative bowing made Harris' solo rendition of “The Single Petal of a Rose” a little more stunning, and Dubin elicited wild applause when she plucked her cello like a double bass during “Portrait of Wellman Brown.”

What was most impressive about Harris was not the lightning speed with which he traveled between vibes and marimba, or the ferocity of his solos on “Thanks…” and “African Tarantella.” What impressed me the most was when he was about to hit a note during “Sunset and the Mockingbird”, and then chose to play a more restrained figure. Harris has matured so much, both as a performer and a writer, composing intricate pieces that belie his relatively short stint in the genre. He repeatedly called the Ellington pieces “grownup music,” even though Harris is a grownup himself, both artistically and chronologically.

“They keep comin', boy,” Harris said earnestly, speaking of Travis as he introduced the band. “This music is in good hands!” We used to say that about Harris back in the day. Now Harris is the seasoned artist, giving clinics to young players when he isn't creating (or performing) another brilliant new work. And that is as it should be.

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), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.