The vibraphone is a true child of the 20th century: without electricity, which rotates the metal discs below its tone bars, it couldn’t produce its signature vibrato. But the vibes’ gelid timbre and percussive attack haven’t become a widely used color in the musical palette. In jazz, only one generation has produced even two contemporaneous vibes giants–the baby boomers, who gave the world Gary Burton and Bobby Hutcherson–while the piano or saxophone consistently see a crowd of iconic players in any given year. As a result, the identity of the next “vibes great” never provokes much excited speculation: after all, before a debate can break out over who’ll emerge as the true king, several contenders have to be vying for the crown. So it’s even more impressive that vibist Stefon Harris has stirred up so much hoopla; he’s attracted praise and built an audience almost in spite of his instrument–which, not incidentally, he plays better than almost anyone who’s ever taken mallet to metal. His tremendous technique nearly equals that of Gary Burton, the instrument’s greatest virtuoso, but he makes his solos seem effortless with the unforced precision of his liquidy phrasing–think Milt Jackson, but at double time. And Harris’s second album, 1999’s Black Action Figure (Blue Note), proved that behind all that flash and dexterity lies a fertile musical imagination; under the watchful eye of M-Base conspirator Greg Osby, who produced the disc, he bounced easily between bebop and hip-hop. Though Harris’s next release, a forthcoming duet with pianist Jacky Terrasson called Kindred, challenges him to restrain his exuberance in that most intimate of settings, he’s also pursuing a large-scale project–he recently premiered a symphonic-length suite, modestly titled The Grand Unification Theory, that he wrote for an 11-piece ensemble; Blue Note plans to issue a recording of it in a year or so. For this engagement he brings a terrific lineup similar to the one that accompanied him last year at Ravinia: bassist Tarus Mateen, drummer Terreon Gully, and young pianist Aaron Goldberg, who replaces Orrin Evans. Friday and Saturday, June 22 and 23, 9 and 11 PM, and Sunday, June 24, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.