In his musical life so far, the dazzling vibraphonist-bandleader Stefon Harris has mapped out a willfully varied course, taking care to acknowledge his deep jazz roots while venturing out into new and creative terrain. After his last album, the chamberesque Ellingtonia of African Tarantella: Dances with Duke, Harris’ new offering, Urbanus, harbors a more accessible, party-ready aesthetic.
With his band Blackout, the vibist is the physical, acoustic element in a tight creative collusion with keyboardist Marc Cary, on acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes, and saxophonist Casey Benjamin, whose peregrinations into electronics and the half-human sound of the vocoder don’t always feel that contextually sound. Then again, with this project, Harris is valiantly attempting to do some cultural gap-bridging, reaching out to groove-seeking ears while keeping the jazz muse in mind.
The album works a balance between more eclectic and funkified ideas and older feels and traditions, starting with the opening track, “Gone.” Here, Harris gives an inventive nod to George Gershwin’s “Gone, Gone, Gone” and Jackie McLean’s “Minor March,” as well as the retro undulations of the go-go groove, which Miles Davis took to in his later period.
On “The Afterthought,” the feel shifts from a fast swing and a burning Cary piano solo to a slinking shuffle in the middle. Moving in a different direction, “For You” is a deceptively straight-on soul ballad that takes unexpectedly hip harmonic and textural turns. “Tanktified,” with its slippery yet solid bassline from Buster Williams, evokes the Headhunters, not at all a bad reference point for Harris’ brave new jazz-soul fusioneering.