JAZZBO NOTES RECOMMENDED RECORDING
Stefon Harris really set himself up as a target calling this release The Grand Unification Theory. The title implies that Harris’ ambition was to bring all of the strands of jazz together under one roof and tie them together so we can see the connections, much the way that Mingus used to do, only updated to the present. That would be ridiculously ambitious.
Fortunately, that’s not the game that Stefon Harris is playing. There’s some compositional variety on The Grand Unification Theory, and Harris utilizes larger instrumental forces than usual, but there’s only one reference to the past, the rump roller The Velvet Couch, which takes it’s inspiration from tunes like Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder from the 1960s. The rest of the album is resolutely modern.
Prologue is a medium tempo, hard swinging tune that intersperses long-limbed melodies with lots of harmonic movement with relatively short vamps.
At first, The Birth Of Time sounds like it’s going to head in the direction of free jazz and the avant guarde, but that’s only the deceptive opening, which sounds like Stefon Harris’ idea of the Big Bang. Then comes a rhythmic idea, sparsely arranged, that is repeated through several different chords, resolving in a floating diminished scale played by Xavier Davis on piano. This is the A section. A transitional through composed section (a recurring device Harris is obviously fond of) leads to a cyclical chord pattern with some African-sounding rhythmic patterns on vibes underneath. That’s the B section. A transition leads back to the beginning and the form is repeated. This time, Tim Warfield gets to solo on tenor sax during the B section. His lines are never less than intelligent, but he keeps things pretty mellow. The same could be said for trumpeter Derrick Gardner.
Leader Stefon Harris gets a chance to shine on The Velvet Couch. His lines on vibes have plenty of swing, they’re pretty, and he gets some nice mini-grooves in, too. Harris also shows he’s perfectly capable of writing charts that mimic those old Lee Morgan Blue Note albums, with contrapuntal lines between the trombones and the trumpet and saxophone. Harris ends the tunes with handclaps and party sounds. Interestingly, he does a cross fade into the next tune, a 12/8 tribal sounding thing appropriately called Morph, which in turn disintegrates into Corridor of Elusive Dreams.
Corridor of Elusive Dreams starts off rubato over several chords before briefly heading into another 12/8 groove.
Then we gets something a little different on Escape To Quiet Desperation: a Latin groove in 10/8. Who knew? Xavier Davis and Harris double a melodic ostinato on piano and vibes respectively while a slow melody unfolds via the lushly orchestrated horns. After the melody is expressed, Kahlil Kwame Bell gets to have a little fun on percussion, playing against the ostinato. Steve Turre has a solo on trombone. He gets some bebop licks in, but mostly he works in a Latin vein, comparing and contrasting with the montuno set up by pianist Xavier Davis. There’s a bridge in 4/4 and then we return to the 10/8 ostinato to finish out the tune.
Song of the Whispering Banshee is a ballad, fully orchestrated, with Anne Drummond’s flute like a cherry on top. In an original touch, Tarus Mateen contributes an African sounding vocal. I had no idea he could do that. He’s also the bassist on The Grand Unification Theory, by the way. Stefon Harris has a beautiful vibraphone solo on this one, dominated by trills.
March of the Angels has a suitably pretty cycle of chords as the core of the composition, done in a modified march rhythm, giving the piece a nice forward momentum. Harris alternates between melodic statements scored for brass and woodwinds and solo space for himself and pianist Xavier Davis. Harris finishes the piece with a melodic ostinato in another time signature, which I couldn’t quite make out, over which drummer Terrence Gully solos.
I should mention that drummer Terreon Gully plays an indispensable role throughout The Grand Unification Theory. Sometimes he really has to hammer out rhythmic ideas in a forceful way, especially during the more fully orchestrated passages, but he can play with a whisper on the brushes in the quieter passages.
As you can probably tell by now, there’s a lot of compositional variety on The Grand Unification Theory. The featured soloists are all excellent if not mindblowing, and the overall musicianship is very good. As on his other releases, Stefon Harris emphasizes accessibility, never going for harsh effects, but at the same time, The Grand Unification Theory is quite adventurous.
If I have a complaint, it’s that Harris’ themes aren’t especially memorable. You’d be hard-pressed to remember any of his melodies, harmonic devices, or rhythmic hooks five minutes after the fact. But you can’t have everything. The Grand Unification Theory is quite enjoyable and shows an admirable amount of ambition.