11/02/06

Stefon Harris at The Neurosciences Institute

At the risk of indulging site-oriented stereotyping, some jazz gigs just have an inherently brainier vibe than others. Take, for an obvious example, the concert series at The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, a respected and architecturally dazzling location and a fine, acoustically friendly theater space in which to hear jazz. Given the right programming, which the “Athenaeum Jazz” series has frequently managed, jazz comes to life with a kind of refined focus in this space.

An in-house publication in the lobby, called Brain Matters, considers the research of Aniruddh Patel, probing the connections between music and the brain. “As far as we know,” he is quoted as saying, “humans are the only species that synchronize to a beat, that move or tap their feet to musical rhythms. What does that tell us about the human brain and its structure and function?”

On a recent autumn night here, there were plenty of musical rhythms to synchronize—and attempt to synchronize—to. With his inspired blend of things cerebral, soulful, swinging and exploratory, vibist Stefon Harris is precisely the right stuff for this hall and this series, and his recent appearance here with his quintet was an ideal way to cap off the 10th year of one of the west coast’s more discerning jazz concert series. The timing is right, as well, in terms of the artist’s evolution. Harris’ latest album, African Tarantella: Dances With Duke, is among his best yet, an embrace of lesser-known Ellingtonia as well as Harris’ own Ellington-colored “Gardner Meditations.”

In La Jolla, Harris brought a leaner ensemble than he has deployed for this material, but with plenty of flexibility in terms of texture and arrangement potential. Nimble-minded and -fingered pianist Marc Cary and drummer Terreon Gulley were also featured on the new album. Cary has been a well-known figure in jazz for years, and Gully is a dynamic talent-deserving-wider-recognition, who can sneak colors of hip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass into his swing patina. For this westward touring group, Harris was also smart in hiring the 19-year-old bassist Earl Travis, who tends to do the right things, in solo and support mode, and also alto saxist Casey Benjamin. In this context, the saxist appeared to be, roughly speaking, the “straight” man, the soul man.

Logically considered the vibist of his generation, the 33-year-old Harris is a fascinating fixture in jazz, and on several fronts. At the Neuroscience Institute, he showed what he’s made of, including an abiding, strong, conceptual undercurrent in both his original material and his fresh, rethinking treatments of pieces from Ellington’s “New Orleans Suite” (i.e. the concert-opener “Thanks for the Beautiful Land on the Delta”) and the “Queen’s Suite” (via a lustrous version of “The Single Petal of a Rose,” on solo vibes).

As a player, the endlessly charismatic Harris moved easily from hushed lyricism—as in his own lovely ballad “Memoirs of a Frozen Summer”—to brisk range-leaping flights, keeping harmonic interest at a high level. Ending the first set, a fractured blues evolved in surprising ways, as it was subjected to the tricky business of accelerando and fell into a hypnotic 7/8 end vamp, over which Cary and Gully gymnastically stretched out.

Given the emphasis on Harris’ recent recording project, and also a general large-structure consciousness in his work, the recent concert played up the episodic and evolutionary nature of suite-like pieces. By concert’s end, though, discrete tunes brought the musical focus back to piecemeal structures.

A fast run through Monk’s “I Mean You” found Benjamin taking off and heading more “outside” than earlier in the evening. Cary’s tune “The Afterthought” capped off an evening with generous appeal to the heart, soul, and, yes, various points in the head.

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