URBANUS (STEFON HARRIS AND BLACKOUT)

THE STORY SO FAR:

Famed vibraphonist-composer Stefon Harris returns with his Concord Jazz debut, Urbanus; a spectacular piece of work sparkling with optimism, ingenuity and emotional immediacy. Special Guest on the album includes Y.C. Laws – percussion; Anne Drummond – alto flute; Anna Webber- flute; Mark Vinci – clarinet & bass clarinet; Sam Ryder – clarinet; Jay Rattman – bass clarinet; Rigdzin Collins – violin.


This is Harris’ and Blackout’s first recorded collaboration in five years,following their 2004’s successful album “Evolution”.

TRACK LIST

  1. Gone
  2. Christina
  3. Tanktified
  4. Shake It for Me
  5. Minor March
  6. They Won’t Go When I Go
  7. The Afterthought
  8. For You
  9. Blues for Denial
  10. Langston’s Lullaby

THE CRITICISM:


Although Urbanus is a Harris project, the frontman offers ample opportunity for Blackout members to showcase their compositions. One adept example is Marc Cary’s upbeat “The Afterthought,” which transits from an energetic, solo piano segment to a stimulated, fashionable groove enhanced by Harris’ fervid and comprehensive marimba solo. Bassist Ben Williams and drummer Gully make an intensely limber and adaptable team, complementing each other while rendering a rhythmic backbone. Williams’ forward-rising solo near the end is certainly no afterthought. Gully steps out on the intriguing, modern jazz piece “Tanktified,” which is catalyzed by Williams’ syncopated acoustic bass lines and twofold contributions from Mark Vinci’s bass clarinet and Harris’ vibes. Meanwhile, Cary’s Fender Rhodes furnishes a funky undercurrent.

However, the most current sounds feature Benjamin’s vocoder, which in any context is most easily identified with Stevie Wonder. So it is no wonder – if you will pardon the unavoidable pun – that Blackout covers Wonder’s “They Won’t Go (When I Go),” from his 1974 outing Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Wonder’s version has a somber feeling darkened by sober lyrics and a funereal meter. Harris and Blackout preserve Wonder’s grave admonitions about destiny, but otherwise lighten the mood with a fuller arrangement: Benjamin’s vocoder unsuccessfully replaces Wonder’s voice, while flutes, clarinets, vibes, bass, drums and Fender Rhodes supply a soulful and healthy tone missing from Wonder’s performance.

If anything, Urbanus goes further in establishing the star power of each of its band members. Harris may be its titular leader—and, no doubt, primary conceptualist—but Urbanus is an impressive group effort on a number of levels. Writing, playing, interaction: Blackout scores high on all counts while, at the same time, delivering a disc with plenty of cross-over potential and all-ages appeal. For Harris, it consolidates his various interests into an integrated whole, dispensing with early criticisms and finally delivering a different kind of unification: intellectually deep and emotionally resonant.

THE BREAKDOWN

Final Score: 89% – B

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