Meddlers trying their hand at the music of Duke Ellington better observe two commandments: Add something (otherwise why bother?) and subtract something (to avoid close comparisons with the master, a.k.a. suicide). Stefon Harris escapes damnation and then some.
On his new African Tarantella (Blue Note), the most obvious ingredient Harris adds is his vibraphone, whose creamy waves and elegant strokes bow deeply to selections from Duke’s The New Orleans Suite and The Queen’s Suite without aping the originals’ instrumental/harmonic peculiarities. The rhythms are edgier, sometimes conflicted, just as we are almost half a century down the line. Tarantella also humbly offers some Harris compositions from The Gardner Meditations (inspired by visiting Boston’s Gardner Museum) that stick to the luxurious, confident mood he’s established while sprinkling a dash of his own playfulness and street-strut. The subtractions are mainly in density, as Harris thins out an orchestral template to the size of a nonet, leaving an open, dustless room where he alludes to Ellington’s opulence rather than wallows in it.
Harris appreciates how ideas of sophistication can evolve on the surface, while the foundations — balance, insight, inspiration — stay the same. At 33, he’s telling stories, turning melodies, making something new out of Ellington in ways only a few with names like Monk and Mingus have done before. For this quintet stand, he retains from the album the deep drums of Terreon Gully and substitutes pianist-to-watch Marc Cary along with Earl Travis (bass) and Casey Benjamin (sax).
Stefon Harris plays the Jazz Bakery, ?Fri.-Sun.
M & M & M & M
Angeltown has been swarming with fantastical jazz wildlife the last few weeks. I caught a lot, not all I wanted. (The full stampede would’ve been fatal.) But there’s much I’ll remember.
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Roscoe Mitchell & Joseph Jarman (Ford Amphitheatre, 10/8): high mass celebrated by two archbishops of my religion. Mitchell whipped his soprano sax across the microphone while executing limitless circular-breathing runs and sustains — to receive the dynamic physicality of this small man’s output was like being caned. Jarman’s lone bass flute filled the canyon, somehow drowning out the choirs and armies of Roger Waters’ The Wall across the freeway at the Hollywood Bowl. Spirit over flesh.
Maetar (the Derby, 10/6): From sexdog funk to a goddamn conch-shell duet, this Israeli/American trio pulled off an entire art circus complete with poetry, incantations and world-conscious guests. The group’s next First Friday of Peace at the Derby is 11/3; miss not.
Mastodon (Fonda Theater, 9/29): The rampaging Atlanta riff quartet is jazz as much as metal, without being “fusion” at all. What drummer Brann Dailor does — you call that rock? The capacity throng stood with jaws flapping till they realized at the end, oh yeah, gotta kill one another now.
Matthew Shipp (Barnsdall Gallery Theater, 10/20): How do you improvise in various modes/moods/centuries simultaneously? Tall, hunched and T-shirted, Shipp snaked his piano’s valuables with quick reach and made rumbling magic with the swag.?