Blackout: Stefon Harris's African Tarantella and Marc Cary's Focus
Stefon Harris still looks like a kid at 30, but he's already firmly established as his generation's leading vibraphonist and the primary heir to the legacy of Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson. Harris' latest album, his sixth for Blue Note, is a Duke Ellington tribute, but not the usual rehashing of well-known Duke favorites. Instead, it's a rethinking of some of Ellington's more challenging extended suites, arranged for a small chamber-jazz ensemble - including flute, viola and cello. It's an ambitious undertaking, but one the hugely talented Harris pulls off with élan.
The three opening cuts are taken from Ellington's "New Orleans Suite and were recorded last summer just as Katrina was lashing waves of destruction on the Crescent City. These deeply soulful selections, especially the rowdy blues of "Portrait of Wellman Braud , give Harris and featured soloists Steve Turre (trombone), Xavier Davis (piano) and Greg Tardy (clarinet) a chance to get in some of their most delicious licks. Harris follows with elegant readings of two of Ellington's most beautiful compositions, "Sunset and the Mocking Bird and "Single Petal of a Rose , from "The Queen's Suite . He closes the album with selections from his own five-movement suite, "The Gardner Meditations , including the lively tango-based title tune "African Tarantella . While the string arrangements occasionally constrain the soloists (this is a group itching to swing), there's plenty of rewarding music to be heard here as Harris reimagines some classic Duke compositions for the 21st century.
Marc Cary, the pianist in Harris' Blackout band, also has a new album out that's deserving of attention. Possibly best known for his stellar work backing Abbey Lincoln, Cary is a powerful force at the keyboard who has a style reminiscent at times of such piano titans as McCoy Tyner and Randy Weston.
Cary's new release, Focus, is a high-octane trio outing of mostly original compositions with the inventive rhythm section of David Ewell on bass and Sameer Gupta on drums and tablas. The lone cover is a searing treatment of Jackie McLean's "Appointment in Ghana , a tune that fits Cary's inside-outside sensibility to a tee. The trio playing throughout is exceptionally cohesive and Cary impresses with both his formidable technique and boundless creativity.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Thanks for the Beautiful Land on the Delta; Portrait of Wellman Braud; Bourbon St. Jingling Jollies; Sunset and the Mockingbird; Single Petal of a Rose; Memoirs of a Frozen Summer; African Tarantella; Dancing Enigma.
Personnel: Stefon Harris, vibes and marimba; Xavier Davis, piano; Derrick Hodge, bass; Terron Gully, drums; Junah Chung, viola; Louise Dubin, cello; Anne Drummond, flute; Greg Tardy, clarinet; Steve Turre, trombone.
Tracks: Appointment in Gahna, Walk with Me, So Gracefully, Voyage to the Inside, Elephant's Eye, Ready or Not, Taiwa, Self Preservation, A Long Walk Home, Gentle Wind.
Personnel: Marc Cary, piano; David Ewell, bass; Sameer Gupta, drums and tablas.