Stefon Harris – African Tarantella – Blue Note/EMI

by | Jan 3, 2007 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Stefon Harris – African Tarantella – Blue Note/EMI 094634109024V, 54:44 *****:

(Stefon Harris, vibes and marimba; Junah Chung, viola; Louise Dubin, cello; Anne Drummond, flute; Greg Tardy, clarinet; Steve Turre, trombone; Xavier Davis, piano; Derrick Hodge, bass; Terreon Gully, drums)

The great young vibes player Stefon Harris has put together an amazing collection of nine cuts from three Duke Ellington albums: The New Orleans Suite, The Queen’s Suite, and The Gardner Meditations. Utilizing an ensemble of unorthodox instruments (for jazz at least) including cello, viola, and marimba, Harris re-imagines Ellington’s big band symphonies as chamber jazz suites.

The first track, Thanks for the Beautiful Land on the Delta, sounds like a Brazilian tropicalia track, with beautiful flute and strings harmonies, and a gorgeous clarinet solo from Greg Tardy backed by Junah Chong’s viola. By forsaking traditional jazz instruments like saxophone and trumpet, Harris’ players seldom threaten to overshadow each other or push a song where it doesn’t want to go. More evidence of this comes on Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies, which begins as slow and noir-ish, Harris playing a seductive vibe line as Anne Drummond’s flute sings of intrigue and menace. Then, at around the 1:00 mark, the song slides into a grandly romantic theme, Harris’ vibe runs suddenly making you imagine the sparkling of a chandelier.

Sunset and the Mockingbird, from Duke’s Queen Suite, alternates between a shuffling upbeat 4/4 melody and a 3/4 waltz. When the song shuffles, Harris’ vibes glide in and out of the song; when the song waltzes, they play in between the spaces in the song, like improvised dance steps. Memoirs of a Frozen Summer, also off The Queen Suite, has the easy, unforgettable melody of a standard. Anne Drummond’s flute is like an early morning bird song outside a window frosted by the title’s “frozen summer.” Louise Dubin’s cello provides a bedrock for the music with low, haunting notes.

My favorite track is The Single Petal of a Rose, which features only cello, vibes, and piano. Harris’ vibes sound like a harp as he plays a two or three note ascending melody with the piano, the cello appearing at around 3:30 with sharp, sad whole notes. So much space is left in the track that each note rings out with  great power and purpose.

African Tarantella is one of the best jazz CDs I’ve heard all year. Each song is so rich with mood and texture that my imagination runs wild with images as I listen. As much a testament to Harris’ ears as Ellington’s genius, African Tarantella is my favorite kind of jazz: rich, cinematic, and teeming with melody.

Tracks: Thanks for the Beautiful Land on the Delta, Portrait of a Wellman Braud, Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies, Sunset and the Mockingbird, The Single Petal of a Rose, Memoirs of a Frozen Summer, African Tarantella, Dancing Enigma.

– Daniel Krow

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