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Album Review

Over two CDs going back to 2004, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and his group Blackout have continued to become more progressive and contemporary at the same time. Employing hip-hop beats on occasion along with straight-ahead jazz or funk, the ensemble seems to enjoy their all-over-the-map concept while adhering to nothing specific. There's nothing wrong with this attitude, but at times one wonders if there will arise a laser beam focus in doing something consistently well. For this version of Blackout, Harris and company have moved from their first home on Blue Note records to the Concord label, and the resulting music bears mixed results. Within the context Harris previously established, the spiky sax and vibe line of "Shake It for Me," with the vibraphonist urged on by the tight and sharpened drumming of Terreon Gully, or the bass clarinet/vibes tandem line of Gully's "Tanktified" sets up ruminant bass and sax, both succeeding in an intriguing way. Hard bop via the Jackie McLean cover "Minor March" or the straight-ahead track "The Afterthought" both hit the nail solidly on the head, the band collectively charging forward. The most impressive teamwork during "Blues for Denial" has Harris leading the way as the band speeds up into a frenzy, again in a bop framework. Combining funk and go-go on an extrapolation of a George Gershwin theme, "Gone" is a cute discourse, adding wah-wah and space tones. There's an adventurous take of the Buster Williams ballad "Christina" which by now is a widely played standard, with the marimba of Harris and multiple add-on lines. Keyboardist Marc Cary is in the band, and positively influences the limited contemporary side of jazz. Then again there's Casey Benjamin's vocoder, which since its early use by the likes of Stevie Wonder has been one of the silliest devices ever conceived to vary the sound of the human voice. Benjamin is one of the best young alto saxophonists in modern jazz — an instrument he should stick with. The cover of Wonder's "They Won't Go" is darker than the original, and plain weird. Every recording from Stefon Harris has been uneven to a certain extent, with his excellent Evolution less so than all the others. There's a majority of excellent music played on this album, but the feeling conveyed is that Urbanus wants to appeal to exactly what its title suggests, an urban crowd less interested in innovation or expansion as it is the beat. ~ Michael G. Nastos, Rovi

Customer Reviews

Urbanus - Finally, some jazz for us 30 somethings...

From the moment that I saw the riveting artwork and heard the first horn toots of "Gone", I knew that this album was made for me. This album is a breath of fresh air - a "musical defibilator" in a artform that is relying too heavily on the works of the past greats to sustain it, yet not enough on the emerging jazz gods like Harris and his brethren. Stefon Harris and Blackout have wonderfully created a masterpiece of work that is funky enough to "go go" in DC to, sweet enough to play for your significant other over a bottle of wine, innovative enough to play for your friends while discussing world events, yet soothing enough to play for your sleeping child. Bravo, Mr. Harris...Bravo indeed... My Faves? "Gone", Tanktified," "Langston's Lullaby", "They Won't Go" and "For You."

An important artist and a great album! You will not be disappointed.

Stefon Harris continues to produce great music and important artistic statements. This album is contemporary, complex, soulful, fun, and deeply rooted in black music tradition. It is simply wonderful music. From the hip arrangement of Gershwin's "Gone" to the playful elasticity of "Blues for Denial," Stefon & Blackout swing, stomp, and sway across a panoply of material that reflects the sounds THEY hear, the issues THEY confront, and the loves THEY have today.

It doesn't break with tradition as much as extend it for today's generation, much as every jazz master has done before. If it makes people my age (almost 50) or older angry, that might not be the worst thing. Bebop angered a lot of swing cats, "hard bop" was disliked by many beboppers, fusion really made folks angry, and free jazz was dismissed by a lot of people. Yet, jazz survived, absorbed, and expanded. Great musicians always, always reflect their times.

By the way, really listen to any one of Stefon's solos, whether over a vamp, a backbeat, or working through standard chord changes. He's killing and saying something compelling every time. Check out Marc's fine piano and keyboard work, Tank's subtle, yet passionate drumming, and that young Ben Williams on bass! Trust me, his fills on "Shake It For Me" have Ray Brown, OP, Percy Heath, Sam Jones, Milt Hinton, and a whoel lot of bass masters smiling and snappign their fingers. Finally, Casey is playing a vocoder on Buster Williams's modern classic "Christina," Stevie's "They Won't Go," among a few others and it works. His note choice is superb and he manages to convery a soulful joy that young audiences really respond to.

Make no mistake, Stefon has produced one of the best albums of the year and an important one for people who want jazz created by today's generation to reflect their experiences.

Finally

This is one in a steady stream of MODERN jazz that I feel really speaks to the times and this generation. I would encourage Stephon and all emerging and established young artists to follow "their"own path. I have to disagree with "damu51" if the number in the name is a indication of age I totally understand. This isnt "YOUR FATHERS'" (or grandfathers' for that matters) jazz. This is fresh and flowing not dusty stagnant music from a by gone era no dis intended. THe times have changed socially, politically and otherwise.This being the case this generation has an "obligation" to reflect that in its music. And contrary to some opinions I especially like "For You" on both this album and on Robert Glaspers' "Double Booked".The vocoder is an innovation as much as a sax or a flugel horn,and it has its place as well .Stevie and Herbie to name a few of the greats, used it as well.Think of all the folk that could say the sax is so yesterday, so tired.I mean how can you dis a means of expression or instrumentation as tired.One of the hardest things for an artist is to grow as a person and musician and take the same folks with you for the ride that were there from the beginning.But evolution is inevitable and as things change an artist grows and brings new fans along the way. The real fans will allow you room to grow anyway.
Im a fan if this incarnation of Stephon Harris.-nuff said.
****four stars all day

Urbanus, Blackout
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