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Stefon Harris Ensemble at The University of Maryland

Having already presented McCoy Tyner's sextet and the Maria Schneider Orchestra, the 2006/7 jazz concert series at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performance Center has focused on a balance between composition and instrumental performance. The Stefon Harris ensemble which appeared February 11th exemplified that balance as well as anyone could. Harris presented sections from recent commissions and his most recent CD, African Tarantella: Dances With Duke. Working with his basic quartet--himself on vibraphone and marimba plus pianist Xavier Davis, Derrick Hodge on bass and drummer Terreon Gully--along with two string player--Junah Chung, viola and Louise Dubin, cello--two woodwinds--Mark Vinci on clarinet and up-and-coming flute star Anne Drummond--and trombone, in this case Roland Barber subbing for Steve Turre. This is unique instrumentation for jazz or any concert music for that matter, and it reflects Harris approach to the re-interpretation of Duke Ellington that is at the basis of this suite.

"I think it's very apropos that someone of my generation would embrace an icon like Ellington at this point," writes Harris. "I'm inspired by that ‘I-will-not-fit-into- anyone's-definition-and-move-forward- with-high-expectations-of-myself' kind of pride." This has been a very personal inspiration for Harris, as he explained from the stage, and the way he has approached his tribute reflected that, as well as his remarkable musicianship. Rather than assemble a group that looks anything like an Ellington orchestra, or small group, and write quasi Ellingtonian arrangements, Harris has elected to extend Ellingtonia into his own generation's sound world. "I tried not to stray too far from his intentions;" he writes, "I wanted to make sure that I was juxtaposing my own compositional sound with that of Duke's. . . . I re-orchestrated the instrumentation and changed a few voices, but I was hoping to maintain the core character of Ellington. I wanted to create a different sound but with the same vibrarions." He has succeeded brilliantly.

The challenge of re-casting Ellington is that Duke's work struck a unique balance between composition and improvisation which is close to the essence of what jazz is all about. Tributes to Ellington are successful only if they can achieve such a balance without slavishly copying Duke's sound. Flutist James Newton brought it off with 1985s African Flower, which won a Grammy. Newton's writing was striking for capturing the essence of Duke with a markedly different instrumentation, his own flute in particular. Ellington used a flutist only occasionally in the person of Norris Turney but even more rarely, if ever, utilized a vibraphone. So it is even more remarkable that Harris is able to recapture the Ellington spirit with an ensemble centered on the instrument. In doing so he also strikes other balances: between chromaticism and diatonicism, and between jazz and classical forms. All of this was evident as he led the ensemble through the selections, while featuring his own fleet mallet solos frequently playing the vibes with one hand and the marimba with the other! and the work of his other soloists. We heard "Thanks For The Beautiful Land On The Delta," "Sunset And The Mocking Bird," "Memoirs Of A Frozen Summer," which was a feature for Drummond, "African Tarantella," "Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies," which was one of Duke's rare flute features as part of the New Orleans Suite. "Portrait Of Wellman Braud" demonstrated the plunger prowess of newcomer Roland Barber showing he is a fine replacement for Steve Turre who handled these chores on the recording. The evening ended, too soon, with "Dancing Enigma." The recording is, of course, still available and I cannot recommend it too highly.

As part of the center's ongoing educational policy, Harris stayed over for a day to give a master class to members of the university's jazz studies program. His clinic was one of the most impressive I have seen. He shared a lot of ideas about the music, from wisdom about the mental approach to improvisation to interesting insights into the emotional affect of various chord voicings. In addition, he brought up music majors from the non-jazz part of the program and had them improvising for the first time, overcoming the fear of flying without a safety net which is a huge issue for almost all classically trained players.

Both his performance and his teaching demonstrated that Stefon has a very ‘old' musical head on some very young shoulders. His contribution to the music, already significant, can only get deeper and stronger.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Stefon Harris
  • Subtitle: Concert and Clinic on the Program
  • Venue: Clarice Smith Performance Center, University of Maryland
  • City State Country: College Park, MD
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