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Stefon Harris - African Tarantella… Dances With Duke

United States
tarantism (It. tarantismo, from Taranto, a town in southern Italy.) a nervous disease characterized by hysteria and a mania for dancing, especially prevalent in southern Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries.

tarantella (It.) 1. a rapid, whirling southern Italian dance for couples, in 6/8time: so called because it was popularly thought to be a remedy for tarantism. 2. The music for such a dance.

28 August 2006 -- From 1927 right up until his death in 1974, Edward “Duke” Ellington wrote/co-wrote something close to 3,000 jazz compositions; arguably the most influential singular body of original contemporary American music ever produced in the 20th century. These are the jazz standards that commanded America’s black and white masses to dance ’n’ swing, bum rushed the Hit Parade, and gave jazz the class, elegance and 'high' art cache it long deserved.

Duke Ellington’s popular compositions set the bar for generations of brilliant jazz, pop, theater and soundtrack composers to come. While these compositions guarantee his greatness, what makes Duke an iconoclastic genius, and an unparalleled visionary, what has granted him immortality are his extended suites. From 1943’s Black, Brown and Beige to 1972’s The Uwis Suite, Duke used the suite format to give his jazz songs a far more empowering meaning, resonance and purpose: to exalt, mythologize and re-contextualize the African-American experience on a grand scale.

32 years after Duke Ellington’s passing, vibraphonist-composer Stefon Harris gives us a remarkable new suites album inspired by Ellington, African Tarantella…Dances With Duke. Comprising Harris’ enlightening re-orchestrations of three movements from Duke’s New Orleans Suite and two from his Queen’s Suites, as well as three pieces from Harris’ own suite The Gardner Meditations, African Tarantella is both tribute and testament to the enduring relevance of Ellington’s power.

“I think it’s very apropos that someone of my generation would embrace an icon like Ellington at this point. His legacy provides us with a clear sense of pride and tradition” says Harris. ”I’m inspired by the audacity of his work; that ‘I-will-not-fit-into-anyone’s-definition-and-move-forward-with-high-expectations-of-myself’ type of pride. When I hear his music, I can see a clear reflection of my own aspirations as a young African-American man. It’s something to aspire to, something to dream about. He epitomizes the elegant mastery of craft and self.”

Harris is no stranger to large-scale compositions having composed and recorded the Grammy-nominated The Grand Unification Theory, a concert-length suite for a 12-piece ensemble. So when The Wharton Center at Michigan State University commissioned him to compose a new piece in 2005, the result was The Gardner Meditations, a five-movement suite inspired by the time that Harris spent at the Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

“I wrote The Gardner Meditations first, and then I picked which Ellington compositions I thought would best align with my overall concept.” he muses. "In arranging the Ellington pieces, I tried not to stray too far from his intentions; I wanted to make sure that I was juxtaposing my own compositional sound with that of Duke’s.”

Indeed, the key to African Tarantella’s artistic transcendence is Harris’ unique ability to manifest his identity within Ellington’s sound. "I re-orchestrated the instrumentation and changed a few voices, but I was hoping to maintain the core character of Ellington. I wanted to create a different sound but with the same vibrations. “

Instead of assembling a standard big band in Duke’s image, Harris opted for a unique chamber jazz ensemble. Built upon Harris’ acoustic quartet (pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Derrick Hodge, drummer Terreon Gully), the ensemble also features clarinet (Greg Tardy), trombone (Steve Turre), flute (Anne Drummond), viola (Junah Chung), and cello (Louise Dubin).

The method to African Tarantella’s Dukeish madness is illuminated by Harris’ comments:

The New Orleans Suite by Duke Ellington:

"My mother is a Pentecostal minister, so I grew up in a church where you could see people poring out their souls, drenched in sweat, giving all that they possibly could. These pieces are soulful in that tradition. As soon as I heard the feeling in this music, I loved it right away. To my ear, ‘Thanks for the Beautiful Land on the Delta’ resonates a passionate commitment to change. Every time I hear that type of driven purpose in music I’m inspired to get back to work. ‘Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies’ always brings a smile to my face. It reminds me of being a kid and seeing the elder sisters in church rockin’ their bright colored big brimmed hats, and of course with the purse and shoes to match. Now ‘Portrait of Wellman Braud’ with that bass line at the top… that’s just sexy. I hate to use the term but the beat is hot [laughs]! It transcends generations. These pieces capture the soul of the era in which they were written yet remain incredibly relevant to me, today. I just added a Stefonism or two in order to further personalize the music for myself and the band.”

The Queen’s Suite by Duke Ellington:

“The elegance, grace, and pure soul of these pieces were impeccably personified in Ellington himself. He told the story about being on the road somewhere in the South and hearing the most beautiful call from an unidentified bird. So enamored by the sound, he immediately wrote it down, translating it into the language of music and called it ‘Sunset and the Mocking Bird.’ ‘A Single Petal of a Rose’ is by far my favorite Ellington composition. For me, this piece represents an astute observation about our existence delivered in a truly liberated language beyond idiom and boundary.”

The Gardner Meditations by Stefon Harris:

“This music is really about another awakening of my own identity. The time that I’ve spent studying music thus far has truly been a journey to the self. ‘Memoirs of a Frozen Summer’ is a piece derived from personal reflections about the beginning of my transition into the world of jazz. This was a summer riddled with hard work, joy and doubt. ‘African Tarantella’ is the sound of my worlds of classical and jazz music dancing together. The instrumentation for this entire CD was largely based on this composition. ‘Dancing Enigma’ is my musical observation of how I, as a modern day jazz musician, fit into modern day African-American culture. It’s about the struggle against outside perceptions.”

African Tarantella… Dances With Duke heralds a new creative beginning and a fierce sense of purpose for a still-young artist. "We don’t have to play Ellington’s music the way it was played in the past in order to be a part of his legacy. I recognize that I’m a part of a great tradition, which has inspired an enormous sense of pride in me. This is the first time that I’m holistically embracing this art form, not just because it’s beautiful music but also because it’s a significant part of who I am.”

STEFON HARRIS • African Tarantella… Dances With Duke • Blue Note 41090 • October 3, 2006
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