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Arts & Entertainment Preview - October 1999

Popular Music and Jazz
B Y   B O B   B L U M E N T H A L   &   C H A R L E S   M.   Y O U N G

A Vibist Arrives

The vibraphone may blend rhythm and melody in a way that makes it an ideal jazz instrument, but vibes players are among the music's rarest commodities. A young vibist with the technique and versatility of Stefon Harris is therefore bound to attract attention; but the twenty-six-year-old newcomer has more than impressive appearances with proven leaders like Joe Henderson, Buster Williams, and Wynton Marsalis to his credit. Harris's first Blue Note CD, A Cloud of Red Dust, was voted Recording Debut of the Year at the 1998 Jazz Awards in New York, and his new Black Action Figure is just as fresh and challenging -- but with a difference. The virtuosic attack and echoes of modern symphonic as well as jazz influences remain, signs of Harris's training as a classical percussionist; but where Red Dust drew much of its character from an emphasis on Latin and African beats, Black Action Figure employs a smaller rhythm section and obtains a more open group sound. This allows Harris to explore the vivid combinations he creates when his vibes are paired with Steve Turre's trombone or Gary Thomas's alto flute, without in any way draining the music of its power; but the vibist is not only concerned with swinging hard. He is the rare young musician who creates albums with an overall pace and shape, and he has molded this collection with careful attention to variations in tempo and brief, effective transitional inserts. Harris is also willing to go out with a whisper, and underscores his uniqueness and maturity by allowing his diverse original compositions to build to the dramatic ballad "Faded Beauty." -- B.B.

Full Disclosure

In the seventies Linda Ronstadt and Judy Collins had a way of putting together songs that made an album a complete work of art, giving the listener a sense of having read a good novel that hit the full range of emotions. And they didn't hide those emotions behind a big wall of irony and postmodern crud. Mary Lee's Corvette, which consists of Mary Lee Kortes and a changing group of superb backup musicians, achieves a similar feel on True Lovers of Adventure (Wild Pitch). One of those rare singers with a noticeable personality and all the traditional qualities of a great voice (in pop music you usually get one or the other), Kortes performs and writes in a surprising array of styles, ranging from smoky jazz to classical to medieval to rock-and-roll to folk, arranging them with minimal obeisance to the strictures of pop. Verse, bridge, chorus, hook, solo, drastic change of mood -- any of them can show up anywhere. The words scan all over the place, with few rhymes, but somehow fall unerringly into the melodies, most of which are gorgeous. "Why Don't You Leave Him?," about domestic abuse, is an early front-runner for most memorable melody of the year, and the lyrics are heartbreaking. -- C.M.Y.

Electric Blues

   Paul Rishell and Annie Raines

In the credits for Moving to the Country (Tone-Cool), Paul Rishell lists his guitars (National Reso-Phonic and Fender) and Annie Raines her harmonicas (Hohner). It might have been appropriate to list their vitamins, because their audience might like to know where their utterly invigorating, more-contagious-than-the- latest-flu-germ-from-Asia energy comes from. Bioflavonoids? Folic acid? Megadoses of beta carotene? There must be some physical explanation for the sheer joy they bring to the blues. Stylistically, they play a primitive, sloppy form of blues with sophistication and accuracy. Tight but loose, as Led Zeppelin used to say. Heavy but light, as no one used to say. They also play electric and acoustic, venture into jazz a bit, and make use of the occasional side musician. Rishell fingerpicks his guitars in various tunings, stirring up a surprising array of flavors: tang, sting, sweet, sour, maybe a quarter cup of fish sauce and an equal amount of lime juice. In fact, forget the vitamins. Think of the best coconut chicken soup you ever had in a Thai restaurant. Further think of Raines's harmonica as six stalks of lemongrass, one cup of chopped coriander, and ten chilies. In other words, lots of heat but also plenty of subtle variation under the theme. Side dishes include Django Reinhardt and Stephen Grappelli ("Tears," on which Raines plays the succulent violin part on harmonica), Memphis Minnie ("My Washerwoman's Gone"), and Blind Blake ("Sweet Jivin' Mama"). The main course, though, is Rishell and Raines. If you want a second helping, try their previous and equally delicious album, I Want You To Know. -- C.M.Y.

Bob Blumenthal is a jazz critic for The Boston Globe.

Charles M. Young reviews popular music for Playboy, Musician, and other publications.

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Photo credits -- Harris album: Courtesy Blue Note. Mary Lee's Corvette: Paul T. Chan. Rishell/Raines: Eric H. Entonjou.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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