Since he first appeared on the scene in the mid 1990s, Stefon Harris has been impressing audiences and winning fans. His albums as a leader, beginning with the exceptional A Cloud of Red Dust (1998) and continuing through 2003’s song cycle The Grand Unification Theory, amply demonstrate Harris’s considerable range and ability. He has worked in diverse settings with some of the finest musicians in the business (Greg Osby , Steve Turre, and the late Joe Henderson spring to mind). With Blackout, the vibrophonist’s latest project, Harris turns his hand to funk and fusion with compelling results.
In addition to Harris, Blackout consists of Marc Cary on piano and electric keyboards, reedman Casey Benjamin on tenor saxophone, flute, vocorder, and a second set of electric keys, Darryl Hall on electric bass, and Terreon Gully on drums. Harris led the quintet on vibes and MalletKat, an electronic mallet instrument capable of creating an impressive range of sounds. During the course of their ninety minute set, Blackout turned the mutha out on six extended jams, deftly combining funk and high quality straight ahead jazz. Harris dazzled the crowd with his mastery over both of his instruments, his incredible technique winning out over technological gimmickry. Benjamin has a lovely tone on tenor sax, and his solos were tight. Much of the time, however, Benjamin lent support to the rest of the band through his use of the vocorder and electric keyboards (often played with a talk-box). Cary turned in several excellent solos on the Fender Rhodes (an instrument that is too often maligned, in my opinion), occasionally contributing spacey sound effects on a synthesizer. His solos on acoustic piano were percussive and suggested the influence of McCoy Tyner. Hall’s bass was a constant presence, keeping time while contributing a unique liquid sound. Hall soloed only once, on an untitled Harris original (Harris invited suggestions from the audience), giving an inspired performance that whipped the audience into a frenzy. It was some of the freshest electric bass I’ve heard in a long time, and may well herald Hall’s arrival as a significant voice on that instrument. Not to put to fine a point on it, but Terreon Gully is a monster. His thundering drums quickly overwhelmed the Egg’s sound system (clearly not designed to withstand such a sustained assault). In addition to being loud, Gully is also one of the best drummers working today, and is the only member of Blackout who has worked with Harris before. He is a hip-hop influenced percussionist who can hold his own in a straight-ahead setting, which makes him sound at once contemporary and classic.
Harris plans on getting Blackout into the studio by the fall, and spent much of the evening debuting new material. One of the best of these was "The Lost Ones", a midtempo jam with a fat (make that PHAT) bass line and some excellent unison passages played on flute and vibes. The tune is extremely danceable, while containing thought-provoking solos from Harris on both of his instruments. It reminds us that at one time, jazz was dance music. Blackout suggests that it might well be again.