Stefon Harris and Blackout – Urbanus – Concord Jazz CJA-31286-02, 55:23 ***1/2:
(Stefon Harris – vibraphone, marimba, producer; Blackout: Casey Benjamin – alto sax, vocoder; Marc Cary – Fender Rhodes, piano, other keyboards; Ben Williams -bass; Terreon Gully – drums; Guests: Y.C. Laws – percussion (track 1); Rigdzin Collins – violin (track 8); Anna Webber – flute; Anne Drummond – alto flute; Marc Vinci – clarinet, bass clarinet; Sam Ryder – clarinet; Jay Rattman – bass clarinet)
On Urbanus, his second album with his new outfit Blackout, Stefon Harris makes it clear his latest music is geared to a contemporary audience who don’t find anything odd about listening to Radiohead and Ravel or Sam Rivers and Steve Reich with equal enjoyment. Urbanus may be a jazz release but it is one motivated by barriers being broken down and the embrace of diversification: think of it as jazz for the iPod generation.
Harris and Blackout are steeped in metropolitan rhythms and melodies. The ten-track Urbanus crackles with elements connected with pop music, soul, hip-hop, R&B, funk, and other modern sounds: this is music with accessibility that is also ambitious.
A good case in point is opener "Gone," an almost unidentifiable, quick-witted re-conception of the George and Ira Gershwin standard "Gone Gone Gone." The cut jumps to the quivering polyrhythm of go-go, a funky, beat-driven genre that erupted from Washington, D.C. in the late ’70s. Harris retains some of the original song’s framework via flutes and clarinets, but the bubbling go-go tempo adds a completely different dimension. Furthering the party atmosphere, Marc Cary slips in Fender Rhodes and clavinet, while Casey Benjamin briefly heads toward avant-garde territory on his alto saxophone. The large 11-piece ensemble gives the arrangement an abundant and expansive manner, but throughout Harris provides a counterpoint with his vigorous vibes.
The group keeps the program hopping on a propelling rendition of Tim Warfield’s "Shake It for Me," which fuses a sweltering James Brown-styled groove with a bop-slanted inclination. The song has an overlapping, intricate melody and an absorbing sense of tension, with short but enticing retorts between Harris’ marimba, Cary’s piano, and Benjamin’s sax. That’s followed by the likeminded Jackie McLean workout "Minor March," originally released in 1955 on Miles Davis and Milt Jackson Quintet/Sextet. The tune combines a martial rhythm with a charismatic, heated tempo, and is highlighted by Terreon Gully’s pivoting drums, Harris’ scudding vibes and marimba, and stabs of sax from Benjamin and demonstrates that Harris and Blackout never disregard their musical foundations.
Although Urbanus is a Harris project, the frontman offers ample opportunity for Blackout members to showcase their compositions. One adept example is Marc Cary’s upbeat "The Afterthought," which transits from an energetic, solo piano segment to a stimulated, fashionable groove enhanced by Harris’ fervid and comprehensive marimba solo. Bassist Ben Williams and drummer Gully make an intensely limber and adaptable team, complementing each other while rendering a rhythmic backbone. Williams’ forward-rising solo near the end is certainly no afterthought. Gully steps out on the intriguing, modern jazz piece "Tanktified," which is catalyzed by Williams’ syncopated acoustic bass lines and twofold contributions from Mark Vinci’s bass clarinet and Harris’ vibes. Meanwhile, Cary’s Fender Rhodes furnishes a funky undercurrent.
However, the most current sounds feature Benjamin’s vocoder, which in any context is most easily identified with Stevie Wonder. So it is no wonder – if you will pardon the unavoidable pun – that Blackout covers Wonder’s "They Won’t Go (When I Go)," from his 1974 outing Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Wonder’s version has a somber feeling darkened by sober lyrics and a funereal meter. Harris and Blackout preserve Wonder’s grave admonitions about destiny, but otherwise lighten the mood with a fuller arrangement: Benjamin’s vocoder unsuccessfully replaces Wonder’s voice, while flutes, clarinets, vibes, bass, drums and Fender Rhodes supply a soulful and healthy tone missing from Wonder’s performance.
The vocoder is also firmly put to use on two late-night ballads. The instrument is first heard on Buster Williams’ "Christina," previously done by Larry Coryell and Wallace Roney. While this leisurely moving track fits Cary’s relaxing Fender Rhodes, Harris’ smooth vibes and Williams’ dynamic bass, Benjamin’s vocoder is overused and unfortunately and undeniably the voice-modifying tool is little more than a curious special effect. The vocoder takes center stage again on Benjamin’s sultry "For You," which is colored by consolidated flutes and clarinets and Rigdzin Collins’ violin. Happily, though, Harris is resplendent when he strides ahead on vibes. Cary’s piano, though, is smothered by the vocoder. [Reminded me of Laurie Anderson, who is also in love with the vocoder…Ed.]
Urbanus ends strongly with two Harris originals. The concise "Blues for Denial" progressively accelerates from a mid-tempo start into a solidly swinging essay for piano and vibes and seems readymade for a longer, live improvisational approach. Just before concluding, the piece decelerates and successively brakes to a droll conclusion. The set closes with "Langston’s Lullaby," a good-night ballad dedicated to Harris’ newborn son. The cut is the record’s lengthiest and most melodic composition, with an optimistic perception emphasized by Cary’s higher-register piano fills, Harris’ sublime vibes, Benjamin’s alto saxophone, and unified flutes and clarinets.
4. Shake It for Me
5. Minor March
6. They Won’t Go (When I Go)
7. The Afterthought
8. For You
9. Blues for Denial
10. Langston’s Lullaby
— Doug Simpson