Stefon Harris: Black Action Figure

Like the clarinet, the vibraphone has witnessed a sudden re-emergence of popularity in recent years. Sure, there have been a handful of players like Joe Locke, Cecilia Smith, and Steve Nelson who have kept the instrument a vital force in the ’90s; but it was Stefon Harris’ debut A Red Cloud of Dust, which nabbed “Best Debut Album” this year at the Jazz Awards, that really got many listeners all worked up.

While A Red Cloud of Dust was an admirable first effort that aptly demonstrated Harris’ impeccable chops; the ambitious compositions sounded more like collages of ideas than fully conceived statements. His latest album, Black Action Figure however advances Harris as a formidable composer and leader. Like its predecessor, the new record proceeds in a suite-like manner with evocative interludes segueing into more extended compositions. Black Action Figure exudes post-Motown bop vitality as the music seamlessly shifts from blistering bop to enchanting ballads to heady funk.

His continued involvement with alto saxophonist Greg Osby, pianist Jason Moran, bassist Tarus Mateen, and drummer Eric Harland has afforded the album with a tremendous sense of group empathy which bolsters Harris’ intriguing melodies, recurring thematic statements, and rhythmic motifs to ricochet with blinding intensity. His most noticeable kindred-spirit is Moran, who always manages to subtly “go out to lunch” in the most fiercely swinging moments. On the dreamy, “Black Action Figure” Moran gracefully accompanies Harris’ floating melody while simultaneously completing his statements, thus creating a tension-filled symbiosis.

Tenor saxophonist and flutist Gary Thomas, and trombonist Steve Turre also join in the fray on a couple of songs. With Osby, they make a R&B-informed horn foil on the funky, “Of Things to Come” as they and Harris trade jabbing riffs against Moran and Mateen’s suspenseful rhythmic motif. The record also displays Harris’ European classical tutelage not only by his precise timing that was gained from his studies as a percussionist, but also his manipulations of timbres and textures. Often pitting vibes against trombone and flute as on the spooky, “Chorale” or playing alongside Thomas’ flute on “Collage” and “Alovi,” Harris constructs bewitching soundscapes that sometimes give the illusion of a larger ensemble.

After being affiliated with great, yet disparate leaders like Wynton Marsalis, Charlie Hunter, Greg Osby, and Steve Coleman, Harris has already gained a wealth of musical knowledge to vibe in any direction his heart desires. Luckily, he’s savvy enough to incorporate those influences to create a vibe completely his own.