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Evolution by Stefon Harris & Blackout

Evolution is one of the standout jazz discs of the year, if not of the past couple. Don’t be surprised to see a Grammy nomination and don’t be surprised to see a rash of head scratching by jazz fans trying to decide whether to embrace this new sound from vibraphone vivant Stefon Harris or what. He and Blackout don’t push the envelope so much as step outside the parameters established by past efforts. Continually evolving over the course of five albums, all released on Blue Note, Harris’ latest evolution is the most striking effort yet for this young master.

If there is a conspicuous inspiration at work here, other that the obvious bow to the sounds of 2004, it’s the sound of the 1970s: Donald Byrd’s Black Byrd, Ronnie Law’s Pressure Sensitive, Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters -- these are recordings that come to mind while listening to this wholly modern disc. Like those classics of their era, this taps into the urban pulse of its time brilliantly. Like those classics, too, I suspect this will find detractors aplenty. The opening version of Don Grolnick’s "Nothing Personal" sets the pace with its quick witted and quick paced unison lines. Blackout - Casey Benjamin (alto), Mark Cary (keyboards), Darryl Hall (acoustic bass), and Terreon Gulley (drums) - are the most in-the-pocket jazz funk band on the planet, and are masters of timbre shifts, as they make evident throughout. On "For Him, For Her" Harris shares lines with Anne Drummonds’ flute on a lush, tropical breezy-toned number that highlights his marimba work. That marimba is also beautifully played on the waltz version of Sting’s "Until," with guest Xavier Davis on piano.

Harris’ vibraphone work on his "Red-Bone Netti-Bone" is sharp, snappy and spectacular pointing to his quick wit and uncommon musicality. This is a man in complete harmony with his instrument. Not only is his technical diction flawless but his emotional investment in the music is inspiring. This is evident on his gorgeous "A Touch of Grace," a song that reminds very much of the best of mid 70s-era Donald Byrd in the voicing of sax/vibes over drums/bass all awash in Fender Rhodes. The segue into "Summertime," given a fresh reading that sidesteps cliché while remaining true to the essence of the composition, is superb. Casey Benjamin is in fine form here, playing lead over the marimba, piano and rhythm. The bass-driven "Blackout" features more marimba, with sax and Rhodes coloring the mix. Following the beautiful percussive balladry of "The Lost One," Harris and company deliver a funky and African-flavored "King Tut’s Strut," a composition that calls to mind the great session band Stuff.

The brilliant marimba work of "Message to Mankind" sets up the closing version of Bobby Hutcherson’s classic "Montera," with a fade up and fade out that adds interest. Evolution is a superb recording that comes very highly recommended from these quarters.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Stefon Harris & Blackout
  • CD Title: Evolution
  • Genre: Contemporary Jazz / Modern
  • Year Released: 2004
  • Record Label: Blue Note
  • Tracks: Nothing Personal, For Him For Her, Until, Red-Bone Nutti-Bone, A Touch of Grace, Summertime, Blackout, The Lost Ones, King Tut’s Strut, Message to Mankind, Montara
  • Musicians: Stefon Harris (vibraphone); Casey Benjamin (alto saxophone); Marc Cary (keyboards); Darryl Hall (bass); Terreon Gully (drums) Guests: Anne Drummond (flute); Xavier Davis (piano); Pedro Martinez (percussion)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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