Monday, November 02, 2009

Stefon Harris and Blackout - Urbanus (Concord, 2009)

Like his colleague, pianist Robert Glasper, vibraphonist Stefon Harris experiments with aspects of funk and hip-hop on his latest album. Harris plays vibes and marimba on this disc, joined by Marc Cary on electric and acoustic piano, Casey Benjamin on alto saxophone and vocoder, Ben Williams on bass and Terreon Gully on drums. I thought at the more straight ahead tracks were the most successful ones on the album, the ones where Harris' shimmering vibes and percussive marimba are able to stand out and take charge. An example of this is "Tanktified" which allows horn riffing and percussive drumming to lay down a nice foundation for vibes and electric piano. But things really take off during the back to back short improvisations of "Shake for Me" which is propelled by quicksilver marimba and "Minor March" which gives the core band a nice turn on acoustic instruments, culminating with a nice modern bop solo from Benjamin and sterling vibes from the leader. The downside for me were the dated sounding performances featuring vocoder that gave the music a time locked 1970's feel. "Christina" was a pale performance where this device and an overly pastel toned fender rhodes piano stripped the energy from the music. "They Won't Go (When I Go)" recalls Neil Young's bizarre experiment Trans where the distorted vocals rob momentum from some otherwise interesting music. So, it's a bit of a mixed bag in the end, where the less successful experimental pieces are offset by the band's stock and trade, strong acoustic jazz. I hope I don't sound like too much of a moldy fig curmudgeon, I think that musicians should be encouraged to experiment and try to incorporate different things, but for me personally the vocoder just wasn't it.
Urbanus -

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