Finding his place in the jazz lineage

Boston Globe, November 24, 2006

NEW YORK—To properly unpack the layers of musical and cultural meaning in “African Tarantella,” the latest album from the brilliant vibraphonist and bandleader Stefon Harris, it would require a longer article than these columns permit.

So here’s a summary. A tarantella is an Italian dance whose frenzied execution was once believed to cure a tarantula’s bite – hence, supposedly, the name. Indeed, the album’s cover photo shows Harris bent forward to display a hairy arachnid perched on his head. “African Tarantella” is Harris’s attempt to express the dual European and African paternity of jazz – and with it, in some ways, of American culture itself.

If that sounds abstract, have no fear. “African Tarantella,” which Harris brings this weekend to the Regattabar, is wholly accessible, a beautiful program of movements from suites by Duke Ellington and Harris himself, interpreted on the album by a thoughtfully constructed ensemble that includes, among other instruments, viola, cello, trombone, and flute.

For Harris, 33, who only found jazz in college but in just over a decade has become the top vibraphonist and one of the most original bandleaders of his generation, “Tarantella” is a triumph of lyricism that marks, to use a dreaded term, an arrival at a certain maturity.

Harris says as much, relaxing at the offices of Blue Note, his record label, on a recent afternoon. After several small-group albums afire with virtuosity and a challenging concept piece, “Grand Unification Theory,” he calls his recent efforts a “musical rebirth,” beginning with his research into Louis Armstrong.

“A lot of people when we start, including myself, we want to start in the middle,” Harris says. “After Bird, you check out Trane, then Miles. But you end up learning to imitate and reiterate sounds. You memorize sounds and play them back as licks. But you don’t really understand how to make a melody. It wasn’t until I went back and started studying Louis Armstrong that I got a much greater understanding about how a line is put together. It’s really gotten me away from playing licks at all.”

To Ellington, meanwhile, Harris attributes just as important a revelation – one about his place and responsibility, as a jazz artist, in a cultural legacy.

“With this record I reached a cultural epiphany,” Harris says. “Music has always been an emotional outlet. It’s fascinating intellectually, an incredible challenge. But at this point I really see that I’m a part of a great cultural heritage, a lineage. My feeling about the music is very much solidified now.”

For an artist who, having trained as a classical percussionist, came to jazz in music school, with its emphasis on technique, achieving this insight was by no means guaranteed.

“In music school you’re learning the scales, chords, transcribing in an abstract form, and there’s no real cultural element. But after checking out people like Ellington, not only their music but reading about their life and their impact on American culture, it’s a certain type of pride that I have, and a certain type of obligation.

“Sometimes the perception of African-Americans in this country is a tough thing to face. And I need to know that there are greater things than the way we’re necessarily being portrayed. I look back and I see Gordon Parks, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, these are heroes to me. My take on the art form is no longer it’s fun, or it’s a challenge. It’s that I’m a part of something much bigger than I can control.”

Studying Ellington, whose career spanned six decades of jazz while consistently defying categorization, represented for Harris a deeply liberating experience.

“He’s writing about his perception of love, compassion, fear, which is why it’s timeless,” Harris says. “His music was always about something deep within the human spirit. I look at someone like Ellington and it reminds me that I cannot allow myself to be defined by outside influences. That I’m young, that our people in this country are young, and I am yet to discover who I am. If I can dream it, I should try it.”

Pianist Xavier Davis, a longtime collaborator who appears on “Tarantella,” detects that sense of freedom in his friend’s current state of mind.

“It seems like he’s defining what his artistic vision is, and it’s broad but still very unique,” Davis says. “I don’t see him feeling limited by the trends of jazz today, but he’s also not afraid to incorporate those trends.”

A key setting where Harris found this voice was Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where he enjoyed a residency in January 2002, roaming the rooms after dark and playing when he pleased, including before unwitting museum visitors.

“I had a lot of time just to reflect on things from the past,” he says of the Gardner stint. “The dichotomy of intellect and raw spirituality, the unique combination of the two that I noticed in a space like that, how essential it is to great music.”

Out of that month came “The Gardner Meditations,” a suite that is featured on “African Tarantella.” At a concert here last month, the material blended well with the Ellington pieces, Harris’s composition perhaps ever so slightly more angular.

The Boston sets feature not the full ensemble but a more conventional quintet with alto sax, piano, bass, and drums. That is as conventional as a group can be when it includes the vibraphone and marimba, instruments that appear deceptively simple but produce a fabulous range of tones, as well as requiring near-athletic stamina. In any case, Harris says, the performance is different each time.

“We took music which is very arranged and structured, and you put it in a setting where you have very creative musicians, and you allow them carte blanche,” he says. “We’ve gone so far from the original at times when we’re on the road. It keeps it spontaneous and exciting for us, because we really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Davis points out that no matter the group, the presence at its heart of Harris’s quartet brings looseness and invention to the performance.

“With a large ensemble you can’t have as much freedom,” Davis says. “His vision for these larger groups is much more structured, but because the core of the group is the quartet, there’s still an underlying freedom.”

All of which fits with the sense of musical renewal that shows as much in Harris’s contagious enthusiasm as it does in his recordings.

“The greatest feeling right now is that I feel like I’m just getting started,” he says. “Yesterday I practiced seven hours. Not fancy licks; I went over simple chord structures. The more I do it, the deeper I get into the music and I realize I’m just a baby, man.”