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Stefon Harris: The Grand Unification Theory

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illustration of Stefon Harris

Unlike other “miscellaneous instruments,” such as the French horn or the bass clarinet, the vibraphone has played a central role in the history of jazz. From Lionel Hampton’s influence on Benny Goodman’s quartet in the ’30s to Bobby Hutcherson’s voice in free jazz ventures by Eric Dolphy and Andrew Hill in the ’60s to Milt Jackson’s monumental second half of the last millennium with the Modern Jazz Quartet, the vibes have been present for many of the music’s defining moments.

Yet like other niche instruments, the vibraphone has not had many practitioners. It is probably possible to count all the important vibes players on the fingers of one hand. (To the three above, add Red Norvo and Gary Burton.)

Then there is the fact that the sound of the vibraphone, or vibraharp, issues an emotional summons like no other instrument in jazz. These struck notes, with their luxurious vibrato, possess a deeply evocative textural complexity. They are notes that can hang in the air like the knells of eternity. Every melody sounds more important, more resonant with implication, when played on the vibes.

So it’s no wonder Stefon Harris hit with a splash when he appeared on the scene in the late ’90s. Harris was quick-on-quick, with an attack that relied less on tremolo and more on postmodern, asymmetrical phrasing and whiplash riffs that did not resolve like bebop. And just when you came to expect only bursts and staccatos from him, he would unwind a run like an endless sinuous strand as elegant as Bags Jackson himself. But Harris has always been more than the next fast-gun vibes player. He is a schooled, eclectic musical thinker who is interested in composition and highly developed ensemble concepts. From his 1998 debut as a leader, A Cloud of Red Dust (Blue Note), where he attempted to unify his 10 originals “like a novel,” Harris has displayed a commitment to the record album as an art from.

But his new recording, The Grand Unification Theory, is orders of magnitude more ambitious than anything he has previously attempted. Harris’ aspirations for this work are so grandiose that, at first blush, it is difficult to take him seriously. Harris is interested in physics, and this suite is described as a musical attempt to connect the four major physical forces in the universe (gravitational, electromagnetic, weak nuclear and strong nuclear). The piece is also said to be a story of the life-and-death cycle and a personal autobiographical journey. Perhaps only 27-year-olds are sufficiently innocent and courageous to try to tell the history of the world and “all my philosophies about life up to this point” with their first commission for a large-scale work-especially when they possess no prior arranging experience. The Theory was commissioned for the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy, New York, where it premiered in March of 2001. It is a suite in 10 movements, plus a prologue and epilogue, 70 minutes in duration, utilizing a 12-piece ensemble.

There is of course a story underpinning the music, and it is interesting to follow it. The opening “The Birth of Time,” for example, representing the Big Bang Theory, is appropriately cataclysmic. “Escape to Quiet Desperation” is an effective portrait in music of the drug experience, from the first self-deceptive, lightly swinging rush to a piano figure’s repetitive monotony to the agitated reaching out of Steve Turre’s trombone to the full ensemble’s woozy euphoria, all elements disassembling and evaporating in a saxophone’s tuneless, empty escape of air. Motifs are developed, such as the formal processional of “March of the Angels” and the whirring bass and swooping flute of “The Mystic Messenger.” They culminate in the 10-minute title track, where storms of percussion from the band’s three drummers, including a timpanist, suggest the collision of those aforementioned physical forces. Then the full ensemble’s harmonious blending implies their “unification.” There is a nice touch with the prologue and epilogue. The prologue states a melody in a hard, bright groove by the whole ensemble. The epilogue, dedicated to Milt Jackson, contains single, hesitant, yearning notes from Harris’ vibes that are eventually revealed as the same theme.

But the music must stand on its own, apart from the story. Harris’ Theory mostly succeeds. His band contains highly articulate voices, some known (trombonist Steve Turre and pianist Xavier Davis and tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield), and some virtually unknown (trumpeter Derrick Gardner and flutist Anne Drummond). As Harris paints with their individual and collective colors, he displays deftness and discipline. Forms are worked through in meticulous detail. Solos are succinct and grow organically out of the overall design. And woven through everything, like a silver thread of intelligence, is Harris’ vibraharp, sometimes out front, elaborating the protagonist’s point of view but more often deeper in the mix, illuminating and intensifying and solidifying the whole.

The music here is highly competent, but, as composer/arranger, Harris is not yet ready to write the masterpiece he intended. For all of its polish, his writing possesses a quality of sameness. His themes are well-proportioned but not always memorable, which sometimes makes the pomp with which they are presented come off like bombast. The intellectual control exercised over his materials is so strict that some of the qualities on which jazz depends, like creative impulse and risk, are smoothed out of existence. There are too many sections in these 70 minutes that feel like transitional bridges. This suite could have been concentrated into a more sustained, impactful 40 or 45 minutes.

Sound quality is one reason why this album is not more persuasive. It was recorded by an excellent engineer, Joe Ferla. But it lacks the balance and discrimination among instruments and inner detail that might have made Harris’ ensemble sound more important.

The Grand Unification Theory is, finally, an admirable early work of genuine promise. It is strong enough to create widespread interest in the fact that Harris has already written another suite called The Gardner Meditations and that Blue Note plans to record it.