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Before this year, jazz lovers often noted the odd statistic that all eminent players of the vibraphone (and its acoustic forebears, the xylophone and marimba) were alive, defying the normal mortality rate while encompassing most of the music’s history. True, vibraphonists constitute a small crowd-so small that jazz polls usually consign them to the same miscellany as French horn, bassoon, and didgeridoo. Like passengers on the ark, they arrive in pairs at generational intervals: Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo (both born in 1908); Milt Jackson and Terry Gibbs (1923, 1924); Bobby Hutcherson and Gary Burton (1941, 1943); Jay Hoggard and Steve Nelson (both 1954). Their ranks have now ebbed by a fourth with the passing of Norvo in April and Jackson a few weeks ago, a loss partly relieved by the arrival of Stefon Harris (1973).
No one starts out on vibes-musicians generally get to it via the two instruments it fuses, piano and drums. Yet if for no other reason than that the vibes are quintessentially African, you might expect a lot more of them, particularly in this world music epoch. Even the tube resonators beneath the wood bars of the xylophone and the rotary ones beneath the metal bars of the vibraphone have precedents in the African balafon, which attaches calabashes to the planks for the same purpose. The chief distinction of the American variations is that the bars replicate a piano keyboard, creating a hybrid. The keys say piano; but the thumping of those keys with mallets says drums. And this design determines its uniqueness.
You can get a sense of the difference by sitting or standing at a piano: when you sit, the keyboard stretches away at left and right and you focus on sections of it; when you stand, you dominate it, more inclined to tackle it whole. Mallets increase the player’s command of all the keys, as each hand is reduced to one or two fingers with a reach that can hardly fail to transgress octaves, inspiring riffs that span 30 notes when other instrumentalists are likely to work within 12. While dense piano harmonies elude the vibist, he can usually adapt the linearity of piano solos, but it is almost impossible to imagine a great vibes solo played on the piano-not the plinking melodies of Norvo nor the blues-drenched drama of Jackson nor the quicksilver whoosh of Hutcherson. The vibraphone can electrically raise, lower, or flatten vibrato in the blink of an eye, allowing for colors made not of harmony but of quivering air.
Stefon Harris, who was born in Albany and educated at Eastman and the Manhattan School of Music, was a low-profile presence until last year, when Blue Note issued his first album, A Cloud of Red Dust. He had worked with Max Roach and Bobby Watson and recorded with Terell Stafford, Steve Turre, Russell Gunn, Joe Henderson, and others, before his album and tour pushed him to the kind of prominence that can be heady and damning for a young musician, as signings of fresh-faced players in the ’90s have often balefully demonstrated. In the ’60s, Blue Note routinely promoted rookies to sidemen and, after substantial apprenticeships, gave them their own sessions. Who has time for apprenticeships with the millennium breathing down everyone’s neck? Still, Blue Note has been canny with Harris, grooming him with Greg Osby and Charlie Hunter and bringing him along with another talented newcomer, pianist Jason Moran. The payoff came last week at the Village Vanguard, where he led a quartet with one of the label’s piano stars, Jacky Terrasson, and with the release of his new CD, Black Action Figure.
Vibes players tend to be either cool or frantic-Norvo staring straight ahead with a stoned grin as though he had no idea what his hands were doing, or Hampton, a stick of dynamite with a fast fuse; Hutcherson, a statue with blurred wrists, or Gibbs, a gum-chewing nervous affliction. Milt Jackson may have been the coolest musician of all, dispassionately examining the middle distance, yet hitting every cue on the dime with a percussive force that made your heart jump. Harris belongs to the cool school. He has a charming stage manner and likes to talk to the audience, but he reigns over his instrument with casual authority. At the Vanguard, his solo on “Feline Blues” began with fast edgy phrases that shot off into the air, avoiding the resolutions of bop cadences, and used long rests to set up crackling riffs that crested and dilated into another and then
another-you can hear a good instance of this on his first album’s “Sophistry.” His sound mutated from the staccato of a marimba to the billowing tremulousness of fully whirring vibes. He relied too heavily on tremolos, a corny pitfall for the instrument, especially during Terrasson’s appealing “Baby Plum,” but sustained interest with his command of dynamics and the pedals, his diverse timbres, his wit (on one number, he and Terrasson exchanged famous quotations from Ellington, Monk, and Ornette), and his ability to surprise. Just when you think you know what he can do, he breaks into something different-a fierce tap dance in the treble, a cascade in the middle, a dull-edged jaunt in an echoey cavern of the bass clef.
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.