Tarantella: Dances with Duke
The vibraphone has always held a unique sense of cool in jazz as demonstrated
by greats Lionel Hampton, Gary Burton, and Milt Jackson. Mastery is only attainable
for those who can marry percussionist and pianist theory. Today, Stefon Harris
is one of the few with the dexterity and drive to take vibraphone jazz forward.
On African Tarantella: Dances with Duke, Harris assembles five of the finest Ellington
suite recordings along with three of his own, showcasing cunning historical composition
through modern interpretations.
Dances with Duke highlights a few of Ellingtons compositions of the late
1960s. Born in 1899, Ellingtons life spanned significant social changes
that influenced his writings, but never shook him. "He remained a pure definition
of himself," says Harris who now strives to continue the cultural lineage
set forth by his African-American predecessors.
While Dukes emotional qualities arose out of regional influences, Harris
technique is one of the latest to come out of the institution of formal music
studies. Therefore, one of his greatest challenges is tying theory, scales, and
chords to a vintage that hinged less on transcriptions and more on the African-American
experience. But Ellingtons music was not confined to his cultural time.
Instead, its timeless elements of love, fear, and compassion are what make his
music so relevant today. These same elements attracted Harris to the pieces on
While a native New Yorker, Harris articulate arrangements of "The New
Orleans Suite" convey a modern New Orleans swing, providing a snapshot of
both Ellington and Harris musical personas. By retaining his New York regional
dialect in an Ellington piece, Harris avoids what he terms "the Wal-Mart
effect of music" created by institutional university instruction.
On Dances with Duke, Harris tells a story through the suite that consists of Ellingtons
"Thanks for the Beautiful Land on the Delta," an out-of-sight descending
bass line and drum groove on "Portrait of Wellman Braud," and "Bourbon
Street Jingling Jollies." Notably, the group was in the studio recording
the suite the day Katrina hit, giving the album an extra degree of relevance.
Given circumstances in the region, Ellingtonian expressions of love, fear, and
compassion seem apropos.
In addition to the emotional qualities of jazz, Harris expresses his fascination
with the science of music. "Its about taking a set of vibrations and
organizing them into a set of emotions," he explains. "One translates
organized sound into the emotions of people. I consider myself not effective if
people are not moved." While the arranging on Dances with Duke displays Harris
adept use of intervals and technical training, his composition on his original
suite, "The Gardner Meditations," highlights his grasp of melody, which
he confesses is one of the most ambiguous elements of music. "You cannot
just use chords and scales to tell a story," he remarks. "For me, making
a CD is documenting a period in life," says Harris. "You need to have
a feeling inspired by something. I have reservations about making the same record
"I write the melody first and the melody tells me what instrument it needs
for support," he says. Harris enjoys the light qualities of the flute and
tends to use it a lot to attain a unique union of flute and vibes. He also enjoys
the clarinets piercing qualities along with its wooden blend with the trombone.
The trombone, in turn, creates a wall of sound around it that cushions the sound
of all the instruments together in Harris arrangements.
Like Ellington, Harris uses particular instruments to create a harmony all his
own. Ellingtons lyricism, rhythm, and clear sense of self left a wonderful
tapestry for exploration and discovery by contemporary artists. Ultimately, Stefon
Harris states the importance of telling ones own story: "If you spend
too much time chasing what someone else does, you might miss out on the beauty
inside of you."