By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
Black Action Figure (great title) is a more focused album than A Cloud of Red Dust, though it partakes of some of the earlier disc's strengths and shortcomings. "Feline Blues" is one of his best originals, a welding of two blues choruses, the second modifying the changes of the first, and handsomely arranged for the ensemble with unison winds and a vibes countermelody. Harris begins his solo by tracking a two-note blip through 12 bars, and taking his time, accelerating and retarding the rhythm. He likes to play with the organization of his discs, and on the new one expands on his penchant for interpolating one-minute transitions or send-ups between main selections. So he edited out the pause between "Feline Blues" and a stunning trio version of "There Is No Greater Love" that suggests Bud Powell in its intensity, speed, swarming patterns, and catchy profusion. That standard, however, and an equally riveting 90-second solo on "You Stepped Out of a Dream," point up his weakness as a melodist, clever though his compositions can be. The crafty interludes cannot mitigate the sameness of his writing, underscored by his predilection for high-register instruments, notably a flute-vibes combination-reminiscent of Hutcherson's "Little B's Poem." But then, Harris and just about everyone else in his generation are slightly right of their left-of-center Blue Note antecedents of 35 years ago. Think of Hutcherson's Components and Dialogue.
Yet as Black Action Figure also makes clear, Harris, bassist Tarus Mateen, drummer Eric Harland, and pianist Jason Moran, with guests Steve Turre, Greg Osby, and Gary Thomas, are moving upward and outward. Harris's new ballads, "After the Day Is Done" and "Faded Beauty," are more fetching and less derivative than those on A Cloud of Red Dust. "Of Things to Come" is a solid 32-bar invention, with a modulated one-bar riff for its first half and an expansive melody for its second. Writing, though, is never going to be the primary attribute of a good jazz player, which Harris surely is. A musician who can individualize standards with such brio and wit cheats himself and his audience by not exploiting the great melodies at his disposal. His very authority as a stylist makes you want to hear his take on the repertory.
The jazz-is-dead crowd, never absent for long and tempting to the most resilient fans in a month that witnesses the loss of Harry Edison, Art Farmer, and Milt Jackson, is too busy mourning its own lost youth and enthusiasm to open its ears and arms to new players who embody both. But a musician like Harris focuses attention with the promise of a future worth watching and chronicling. May he be suitably nurtured and challenged. The identity of his doppelgänger remains to be determined.