Stefon Harris

Urbanus

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Over two CDs going back to 2004, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and his group Blackout have continued to become more progressive and contemporary at the same time. Employing hip-hop beats on occasion along with straight-ahead jazz or funk, the ensemble seems to enjoy their all-over-the-map concept while adhering to nothing specific. There's nothing wrong with this attitude, but at times one wonders if there will arise a laser beam focus in doing something consistently well. For this version of Blackout, Harris and company have moved from their first home on Blue Note records to the Concord label, and the resulting music bears mixed results. Within the context Harris previously established, the spiky sax and vibe line of "Shake It for Me," with the vibraphonist urged on by the tight and sharpened drumming of Terreon Gully, or the bass clarinet/vibes tandem line of Gully's "Tanktified" sets up ruminant bass and sax, both succeeding in an intriguing way. Hard bop via the Jackie McLean cover "Minor March" or the straight-ahead track "The Afterthought" both hit the nail solidly on the head, the band collectively charging forward. The most impressive teamwork during "Blues for Denial" has Harris leading the way as the band speeds up into a frenzy, again in a bop framework. Combining funk and go-go on an extrapolation of a George Gershwin theme, "Gone" is a cute discourse, adding wah-wah and space tones. There's an adventurous take of the Buster Williams ballad "Christina" which by now is a widely played standard, with the marimba of Harris and multiple add-on lines. Keyboardist Marc Cary is in the band, and positively influences the limited contemporary side of jazz. Then again there's Casey Benjamin's vocoder, which since its early use by the likes of Stevie Wonder has been one of the silliest devices ever conceived to vary the sound of the human voice. Benjamin is one of the best young alto saxophonists in modern jazz -- an instrument he should stick with. The cover of Wonder's "They Won't Go" is darker than the original, and plain weird. Every recording from Stefon Harris has been uneven to a certain extent, with his excellent Evolution less so than all the others. There's a majority of excellent music played on this album, but the feeling conveyed is that Urbanus wants to appeal to exactly what its title suggests, an urban crowd less interested in innovation or expansion as it is the beat.

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