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Vibrant Vibes

[whitespace] Stefon Harris
In a Cloud of Dust: Fast-rising vibraphonist Stefon Harris is ready for stardom.

The vibraphone is championed by young Stefon Harris

By Nicky Baxter

WHEN HE LEFT his native Albany, N.Y., to study in New York City, Stefon Harris was a classically trained percussionist; today, he is one of the most sought after improvisational-music vibraphonists on the scene. Only 25 years old, Harris (who appears Friday as part of the Stanford Jazz Festival) will certainly be a major star in the next few years. Incredibly, he's doing it on an instrument that has generally been treated like a stepchild in jazz. True, Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson raised the vibraphone's visibility, but it has been years since a vibes player has garnered so much acclaim. On jazz standards like "Body and Soul," Harris plays with reverence but refuses to succumb to rigid formula--he's been known to insert tidbits of James Brown's "Prisoner of Love" into the tune.

Harris first became inspired to play improvisational music while attending college; a roommate stuck on a tape of Charlie Parker's music and Harris immediately became a jazzophile. Harris, who taught himself to read music and play piano by the second grade, received staunch support from Hampton and Wynton Marsalis. The latter invited him to sit in with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra last year.

His solo work boasts compositions like "In a Cloud of Dust," a boppish tune that features a finely wrought piano solo and African drum played by Harris. Though his performance never discounts his classical training--some of his compositions include minimovements--Harris is clearly enamored of African-derived music, a fact made obvious by his playing with percussionist Steve Turre. There is a feeling of completeness to Harris' work. Even as he leaves plenty of room for expression and improvisation, he has found the benefits of structure and he uses it to play with listeners' expectations. His band features vibrant compositions of African polyrhythms, Cuban son and jazzy harmonies. Harris knows how to swing and he allows bandmates to swing with him. In his hands the vibraphone assumes a real identity; even when plunged ankle-deep in heavy percussion, Harris manages to assert himself, making a personal statement that is both liquid smooth and commanding.

Stefon Harris performs Friday (July 17) at 8pm at Campbell Recital Hall, Stanford. Tickets are $18/$16. (650/725-ARTS)

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From the July 16-22, 1998 issue of Metro.

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