Vibraphonist Stefon Harris assembled the cast of Blackout about five years ago, when he got serious about appealing to a younger generation. Unlike most of his other projects, it's not a straight-ahead jazz combo. Rather, it includes musicians who trained in jazz but grew up listening to Coltrane, strut, hip-hop, and new jack swing. Keyboardist Marc Cary is an arthouse dweller who experiments with indigenous music. Alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin is better known for his vocoder, which sings with gorgeous, computerized liquidity. DC-born bassist Ben "B-Dub" Williams is a serial award-winner who also rips it on piano. Drummer Terreon "Tank" Gully specializes in gospel and R&B as well as reggae and Afro-Cuban rhythms. The group is accustomed to getting onstage without a set list and just winging it.
The tension in Blackout's new album, Urbanus, stems from its blending of canonical styles and trendier forms. Harris composed two songs on the track list: the swift, compact "Blues for Denial" and soulful ballad "Langston's Lullaby" (co-written with Benjamin). Otherwise it's a mix of standards and originals, including a couple by Benjamin, one by Gully, one by Cary, and one by percussionist Sameer Gupta, plus a heavily orchestrated Stevie Wonder cover. Harris is the album's obvious star, adeptly switching from vibes to marimba between tunes and singing audibly on most of his solos. He's careful, technical, and incredibly pretty — adjectives which don't always become a jazz player. But in this case he's counterbalanced by other band members, who each get their own moment to shine. Cary sounds quick and imperfect on his own tune "The Afterthought," which shifts grooves a couple times. Benjamin's vocoder adds a metallic gloss to the Buster Williams ballad "Christina," which recalls both Herbie Hancock and the Auto-Tune melodies you hear on today's hip-hop albums.
The album fuses genres but still has continuity. It's neither fussily traditional nor self-consciously modern. For Harris, Urbanus marks another turning point. (Concord)
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