The jazz world has been waiting for someone like Stefon Harris for the better part of 30 years. The twentysomething Harris plays the vibraphone, an instrument that has added no larger-than-life innovator to its small pantheon of greats since the mid-60s–when Bobby Hutcherson embraced improvisational freedom, making the vibes welcome in avant-garde circles, and the young Gary Burton unveiled his pianistic multiple-mallet technique. Both Hutcherson and Burton have on occasion partnered up with their forebears–Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson–but they’ve rarely worked together, and younger players tend to take after one or the other, emphasizing the gulf between the former’s soulful emotionalism and the latter’s cerebralism. That’s where Harris comes in: equally indebted to each, he’s equipped to bridge that gulf, combining Burton’s towering technique and Hutcherson’s command of black music, from gospel to hip-hop. Even before his 1998 debut, A Cloud of Red Dust (Blue Note), Harris had turned ears in New York clubs and on tour with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Last year’s follow-up, Black Action Figure, had to compete for attention with his participation in the Blue Note label’s New Directions Band–an all-star sextet under the de facto leadership of saxist Greg Osby–but earned Harris a Grammy nomination nonetheless. He plays with a complicated swing, sometimes launching into daring melodic flights, and he has the potential to create a vital body of work that–like Hutcherson’s and especially Burton’s–overshadows the idiosyncracies of the instrument. His terrific quartet features drummer Terreon Gully, young veteran bassist Tarus Mateen, and strong-fingered pianist Orrin Evans, whose Monkish melodies have also stirred up a buzz in New York. Wednesday, 8 PM, Bennett-Gordon Hall, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100. Thursday, 7:30 PM, DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl.; 773-947-0600.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Fleishauer.