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Thinking big has never been a problem for Stefon Harris. In fact, it’s his ability to step outside the box of modern-jazz convention that has propelled the 30-year-old vibraphonist and composer ahead of many of his peers. When Harris emerged as a solo artist in 1998 with A Cloud of Red Dust, he was revealed as not only a virtuoso of the mallets but also an adventurous writer who favors orchestral voicings, elaborate counterpoint melodies, and dense rhythmic designs over boilerplate head-solo-head themes. His compositions showcase a gift for manipulating velocity, tonal color, and tension and releasewhich sometimes gives his songs the illusion of being grander works than the small ensemble pieces they usually are.
Three years ago, when New York’s Troy Savings Bank Music Hall commissioned Albany native Harris to write the 11-movement suite that became the 13-track The Grand Unification Theory, the musician was admittedly fascinated with everything except music. From learning Spanish and reading poetry to studying philosophy and physics, Harris absorbed massive amounts of information. And instead of putting his distractions aside to concentrate on the impending commission deadline, he brought all of his far-flung investigations to the table.
Youthful curiosityand youthful ambitioncharacterizes much of the disc, which employs a 12-piece ensemble comprising African, Latin, and European percussion, six brass and woodwinds, and a core three-unit rhythm section. For Unification Theory’s central theme, Harris employs the titular quantum-physics concept, which holds that the universe is governed not by four major forcesstrong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitationalbut by one force acting at different energy intensities. As if that’s not enough to weigh down an album, Harris adds extra poundage by incorporating a subtheme of reincarnation: a story line about a drug abuser who overdoses, dies, and is resurrected. And on top of that, he pays tribute to vibraphone master Milt Jackson, who passed away shortly before the commission.
Unification Theory has all the bombast you’d expect. Hissing suspended cymbals and timpani crest into a deafening sonic boom on “The Birth of Time”; triumphant martial rhythms underpin “March of the Angels.” The mood of the disc swings wildly, from the jovial “Velvet Couch” to the somber “Song of the Whispering Banshee.” And almost all of the compositions feature dramatic episodes in which the dynamics shift suddenly from contemplative quietude to thunderous explosion.
Throughout, Harris improvises with swiftness and precision, unraveling luxurious solos that show off his years of studying piano and European classical music. And he’s not just a formidable improviser; he’s also a great storyteller who knows how to use his instrument’s full range of timbres to convey emotion. On “Song of the Whispering Banshee,” he articulates the song’s theme of mourning by creating glassy, bone-chilling textures under Xavier Davis’ lamenting piano melody. He imbues “Rebirth” with a deep sense of wonder by allowing his notes to reverberate into hazy clouds of sound.
Those compositions are undeniably alluring and evocative on their own, but the album as a whole suffers a bit from overreaching. Harris tries to tie everything together with picturesque interludes such as “Transition,” which unites the groovy, hand-clapping “Velvet Couch” with the howling “Corridor of Elusive Dreams.” And before the “Epilogue,” he inserts a stately piano “Intro Epilogue” that connects the rambling title track with the melancholy finale. Ultimately, though, the dots never quite connect. The sunny “Prologue” sounds jarring next to the rest of the album. So does the Latin-tinged “Escape to Quiet Desperation.”
Ever since Harris began playing as a sideman in the late ’90s, he has been a player to watchand one whom his elders have been eager to nurture. Harris’ most beneficial association so far has no doubt been with alto saxophonist and composer Greg Osby, who influenced him to write vigorous, risk-taking compositions that have little to do with mainstream jazz. Through Osby, Harris also got a chance to work with Steve Coleman, whose concept albums seem to get grander and more outlandish with each new release, including his 1999 orchestral masterpiece, The Sonic Language of Myth. That album tackles themes as broad as those of Unification Theory, but with far greater success.
Coleman, of course, had many more years of experience before he undertook such a monumental task. He took at least a decade after his 1985 debut to progress to large-scale, concept-driven albums such as The Sign and the Seal and Ascension to Light. Harris, by contrast, leapt right into jazz’s deepest waters. His sophomore CD, Black Action Figure, came out only in 1999.
There’s nothing wrong with expanding your repertoire to include more ambitious works, but writing a piece such as Unification Theory is a daunting undertaking for even the most seasoned composer. Harris already has shown us that he has the chopswe’ll have to wait to find out whether he gains the maturity required to make a project like The Grand Unification Theory more than the sum of its intriguing parts. CP