The history of jazz is dominated by the towering shadow of the show-stopping improviser. Asked to identify the pinnacle of jazz mastery, many people will point to the muscular tone of Louis Armstrong, the torrid virtuosity of Charlie Parker, or the determined innovation of Miles Davis. The problem with focusing on these extroverts is that their brilliant personalities often overshadow the contributions of another type of jazz hero: the masterful composer and band leader.
More than anyone else, Duke Ellington exemplifies this latter type of hero. Ellington was a master, to be sure, but his was a mastery revealed not in the blinding heat of a breathtaking solo but in the subtle gestures with which he steered the players in his orchestra. Throughout his life, Ellington labored to expand the reach of jazz, striving to lift the music out of the night club and into the concert hall. Ellington wrote nearly 3,000 compositions in his life, some of the most notable of which are his extended suites, monumental works which fused the scale and technique of European classicism with the vigor and style of homegrown American jazz. Through the years, Ellington’s music has provided a model and inspiration for countless jazz musicians, including Stefon Harris, a talented young mallet percussionist whose latest release is entitled African Tarantella: Dances With Duke.
Harris’ new album contains three sections, the first two of which are movements from a pair of Ellington suites—The New Orleans Suite and The Queen’s Suite—and the third of which is an original work commissioned by Michigan State University. Harris and his ensemble render the Ellington compositions faithfully, but with a few important changes. Most notably, Harris has chosen an eight-piece chamber ensemble to replace the big band accompaniment of the original Ellington works. The strings and winds in Harris’ group retain Ellington’s orchestral timbre, but the smaller ensemble breathes new life into the tunes and gives individuals more space to shine.
For his part, Harris plays with seemingly effortless virtuosity but never uses the music as a vehicle to flaunt his technique. Instead, he serves the music, delivering even the simplest lines with uncommon lyricism. He reacts smoothly with the accompanying instruments, at one moment sending out a sparkling solo while the piano comps, and at another supporting a flute or clarinet with low, glowing tones. Occasionally he bows out for a while and lets the other musicians display their considerable talent, as he does when bassist Derrick Hodge ends “Portrait of Wellman Braud” with a blistering solo. Despite the fine ensemble work, one of the highlights of the disc comes when Harris plays all by himself. As a centerpiece, Harris performs his personal favorite Ellington composition, “The Single Petal of a Rose” from The Queen’s Suite, and his tender account of the music shimmers with delicate beauty.
Harris’ tribute to Ellington is particularly appropriate given the personal circumstances of the vibraphonist’s life. Harris, like Ellington, was greatly influenced by classical music. He even had ambitions to be a symphonic percussionist, which he entertained for a year at the prestigious Eastman School of Music before being turned on to jazz by a friend and heading off to Manhattan to finish his musical training. Harris’ journey to jazz is important because it influenced his new album’s original composition, the three-movement Gardner Meditations. According to Harris, the first movement, “Memoirs of a Frozen Summer”, describes his unsteady musical transition. The second, “African Tarantella”, depicts the interplay between classical music and jazz, and the final movement, “Dancing Enigma”, is a personal reflection on Harris’ own place as a musician in modern African-American culture. In Harris’ hands, what could be a clunky concept yields fresh and enjoyable music. The young composer relies on traditional jazz forms, but imbues them with energy and melodic verve. Although The Gardner Meditations will probably not endure as long as the Ellington pieces from which they draw inspiration, it is a worthwhile composition that rounds out the disc nicely.
Critics will say that Harris does not break musical ground on African Tarantella, and they will be absolutely correct. What he does is strikingly different, but no less important. Harris reminds us that the musical ground we tread is the same that supported the giants of the past, and connects us to their legacy. With his playing and his compositions, he invites listeners to remember that legacy in fresh ways and reevaluate its significance for modern life. Harris provides a reminder that an identity as a visionary is not reserved for those who boldly stride towards the future; rather, it also includes those who persistently reinterpret the present. In so doing, he has created the most special type of tribute album, one which resonates not only in melody and form but also in spirit.