When jazz vibes player Stefon Harris burst on the scene in 1998 with A Cloud of Red Dust on Blue Note, he seemed suddenly and gloriously too good to be true. Here was a classically trained percussionist playing hot and smart on the jazz instrument that seems perpetually to have the fewest contenders. Harris splashed into view as the logical successor to Bobby Hutcherson—bold and thrilling, inside the tradition but surging outward.
But Harris was restless almost from the start, looking to play around with time signatures, to experiment with various arrangements and voices (2003’s Grand Unification Theory), and to employ pop music textures. That last task—hardly novel these days—was the primary objective of Harris’s band Blackout, represented on Evolution from 2004. With Marc Cary on keyboards, Casey Benjamin’s alto sax, Terreon Gully on drums, and Darryl Hall on bass, Blackout was a jazz group on a hip-hop tip, taking on Gershwin’s “Summertime”, but also some straight pop. Despite consistently lyrical, driving playing, this late-in-the-game fusion of pop and jazz sounded more dated than forward-thinking.
Urbanus brings Blackout to a new label (Concord rather than Blue Note) and asks the group to tackle another variety of material: Gershwin again, some soul ballads featuring a vocoder, some unlikely hard bop, and even some pastel-toned modern jazz. When it works, the band sounds sharp and smart. When it doesn’t work, it curdles in your cup.
The most intriguing material here mixes the old Harris with the new, blending the sharp post-bop of his early discs with a homegrown funkiness. This tactic, of course, is nothing new—Horace Silver was doing it in 1965—and using an electric piano as part of the mix is decades old, too. But still, Jackie McLean’s “Minor March” works quite brilliantly atop a series of stuttering stop-time thumps, particularly when the band takes off swinging in a flying 4/4 on the alto solo. Gershwin’s “Gone” is even more original, played over a squiggly go-go groove, particularly because Harris here calls on several woodwind guests to hiply orchestrate Gershwin’s smart, staccato theme. Cary’s Rhodes solo has a sweet sprinkling of magic in it. That said, there isn’t much to recommend the wah-wah clavinet groove or the computer-processed saxophone sound.
The problem, then, is when Harris cops the fusion-y soul sounds of a generation ago and only comes out sounding limp. This tactic seems to be in the air right now (check out Robert Glasper’s latest, Double Booked, to hear more cheesy pop experimentation) as a kind of reevaluation of the funk-jazz of the 1970s. And maybe my problem is that, unlike Harris, I was actually listening to that stuff back in the Me Decade. Ack.
The relevant word here: vocoder. Sure, there are some hip uses of the vocoder (by Kraftwerk, say), but in jazz fusion the vocoder is another word for Velveeta. Robot voice. Gimmick. At least that’s how it strikes me. Harris hears it as some kind of hip nostalgia, perhaps, using it three times here: on Buster Williams’s lovely ballad “Christina” (messed up), on Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go (When I Go)” (the vocals made ridiculous, and a great bass line played on bass clarinet wasted), and on Benjamin’s “For You” (your skin will crawl). Vocoder, be gone.
The playing that seems most unified and true here is the stuff that is most mainstream. It’s not that straight acoustic playing is better or personally preferable, nope. It’s that Harris’s conception is better when it’s not littered with gimmicks. So his delicate “Langston’s Lullaby” is coherent and moving, with Benjamin affecting on soprano and Cary coloring things beautifully on acoustic piano. The bridge, which brings in the bass clarinet to reinforce a newly insistent bass line, explodes outward and launches two great solos. “The Afterthought” is a pure acoustic cooker at first, but it brilliantly moves into half-time for Harris’s marimba solo, with Cary accompanying on both acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes. “Shake It for Me” feints and bobs over a rat-a-tat funk pattern by Gully, but it also eschews easy groove for a thrilling syncopation.
Taken as a whole, then, Urabnus barely coheres. The notion that this strain of jazz somehow denotes a kind of “urban-ness” (a kind of “blackness”?) because it is more pop/groove oriented like R&B is a limited idea in 2009. Plenty of jazz musicians—and uncompromising ones—use driving rock or funk beats to infuse the music with a daring sense of aggression or intensity. There isn’t any particular need to resort to a vocoder if you want to use popular sources to make more creative jazz. Presumably Harris knows this and, well… simply likes the vocoder on those songs. Ack.
Somewhere in Urbanus there is a coherent vision of how go-go, ‘70s fusion, post-bop, and downtown groove music can all flow together. Stefon Harris, whose debut seemed to place him already in the heady flow of the music, is now more of a searcher. Not a terrible place to be, but beware the schtick.