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Spotlights [Issue # 23 ]
Stefon Harris: Tarantella: Dances with Duke

By Jason Sklar

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 Ellington’s compositions of the late 1960s. Born in 1899, Ellington’s 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 Duke’s 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 Ellington’s 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 the album.

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 Ellington’s "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. "It’s 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 twice."

"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 clarinet’s 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. Ellington’s 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 one’s own story: "If you spend too much time chasing what someone else does, you might miss out on the beauty inside of you."

African Tarantella
Blue Note

Tarantella: Dances with Duke Stefon Harris African Tarantella

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