Stefon Harris and Jacky Terrasson: Kindred

Stefon Harris and Jacky Terrasson
Blue Note

Bruce Lundvall is a very intelligent man. He has single-handedly revived Blue Note Records to its former position as the most interesting label in jazz by nurturing young talent and not being afraid to try new ideas. Sure, some of those ideas stunk (anyone remember when he had Charlie Hunter cover that entire Bob Marley album?), but Lundvall keeps finding adventurous new talents and urging them to try new weird stuff.

So when he found out that his hip young vibist Stefon Harris dug the work of his cool young pianist Jacky Terrasson, and vice versa, he got the two of them together for a one-off album. There are a number of reasons this project might have crashed and burned. On paper, it’s hard to get all excited about a piano/vibes album, with all those similar tone voicings, and Harris has a muscular American style of attack that wouldn’t seem to square up with Terrasson’s French conceptual approach.

There’s also the pitfall of Double Star Syndrome, where two well-known performers are so respectful of each other that the album turns into a boring and static affair: there is a theme, then one star solos, and then the other one solos, and then the song is over, and then they do the exact same thing in the next song, etc. But Lundvall trusts his musicians, and when Terrasson and Harris said they could tear it up in a quartet format, he believed them.

And do they ever tear it up on Kindred, which has to be considered for any jazz fan’s top ten list for 2001, and just might have enough crossover appeal to sell albums outside the usual genre fan base. This disc calls to mind the best work of great historical collaborations between vibists and pianists, like Milt Jackson and John Lewis in the Modern Jazz Quartet, and the often-psychic interaction of Bobby Hutcherson and Stanley Cowell in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

But Kindred is also an original and groundbreaking work in its own right. Harris and Terrasson have made a disc that is truly original by breaking one of the time-honored rules of jazz: “The solo is sacrosanct”. The jazz solo is usually held to be the deepest truest expression of the individual playing it, and therefore to be jealously guarded. But these two young talents apparently don’t care much for that rule, and this makes for some stunning moments. The first track is a brisk take on “My Foolish Heart”, and from the very beginning it is clear that they are trying to create one solo from two artists and four hands. And it works, with precise voicing and careful listening and a refusal to hold to outdated concepts like personal glory and ego. It also helps to have a sense of humor, as when Harris sneaks in the classic riff from “Take the A Train”.

The next song, “Tank’s Tune”, is even more impressive. This relentless headlong dash, propelled by Terreon Gully’s insanely funky drumming, really sounds like a trio piece, in which the lead voice happens to be playing two instruments at the same time. By the time the individual solos come in, we are already hooked. They also find a way, later on in the disc, to go even faster: their version of Randy Weston’s “Little Niles” recasts the haunting melody as an obstacle course, in which Harris takes the lead at first, only to yield the floor to Terrasson’s surprisingly assertive playing.

But even this approach would get boring if Terrasson and Harris overworked it, so they don’t. Sometimes they do the MJQ fugue thing, repeating each other’s sounds perfectly; sometimes they just comp really vigorously behind the other’s solo vision; and sometimes they seem to be playing hide and seek. But in track after track, they find ways to create excitement out of the classic tunes they take on. Has there been a less respectful cover of Bud Powell’s “John’s Abbey”? Probably not, but by refusing to bow to tradition, they make it over into a modern-sounding little anthem. And when they do “Summertime”, they hide the melody in another made-up theme, thereby creating a fresh new backdrop for the most over-played melody of modern jazz. Album closer “Body and Soul” is less successful, but still retains a kind of deft fusion groove that manages to appeal to the booty as well as the heart.

There are two original works here, one written by each artist, but they’re not spectacular. Terrasson’s is a two-part suite: “Rat Entrance” is a slow roll by the duo into his major piece, “Rat Race,” which takes the theme from The Twilight Zone and turns it into a double-headed sprint through modern life. It is here that Tarus Mateen’s bass work really shines through, and Gully’s drum solo sounds like club drum’n’bass work in its precision and drive. Yes, there are some amazing sounds here, and it almost turns into a free-jazz workout towards the end, which is pretty cool. But it’s hard to remember the song once it’s over, and the listener doesn’t really get a sense of any underlying melody behind the technical proficiency of everyone involved.

Harris has a wonderful little tune in “Shané”. It is everything that “Rat Race” is not: contemplative, measured, and wistful. If Harris ever wanted to sell out and go for the Soft Jazz Market, he could do that easily; but this song is much too authentic and heartfelt to fall into that scary category. Sadly, the melodic line and pace of “Shané” bear a striking resemblance to Laurence Hobgood’s arrangement of “Never Never Land” for Kurt Elling, so it’s hard to praise it too much.

These two young jazz stars (Harris is 28, Terrasson is 35) have worked hard to produce this brainy and beautiful record and have redefined the notion of jazz collaboration. I’m hoping that they hook up like this every few years to craft a series of co-led albums; they are capable of producing a series that will last longer than they do.