When jazz legend Milt Jackson died earlier this month, several obituaries featured quotations from Stefon Harris. It was a logical connection for journalists to make, because the 26-year-old Harris is the most promising young talent on Jackson's instrument, the vibraphone. Like Jackson, Harris has a swinging sense of rhythm and a limpid, singing tone that makes the percussion instrument sound more like a horn than a gong. And Harris is taking that legacy in some encouraging directions on his sophomore album, "Black Action Figure."
The vibes have such a sweet sound that they are rarely employed in avant-garde jazz, but Harris sends his mallets sprinting through sprawling, Coltranesque chord changes and has them surging to the avant-funk rhythms of such mentors as Steve Coleman, Greg Osby and Gary Thomas. Saxophonists Osby and Thomas join trombonist Steve Turre for an all-star horn section that encourages Harris to follow his more left-field tendencies on "Black Action Figure."
The result is an album full of appealing melodies, mostly original, that escape the strictures of bop to create refreshingly unconventional harmonies. On the title track, for example, Harris begins with an attractive theme but quickly abstracts it and builds a dramatic tension between his melodic lead and the jittery rhythm section. In other words, he has taken his inheritance from Jackson and invested it in a new venture.
Appearing Thursday at Blues Alley.
To hear a free Sound Bite from Stefon Harris, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8128. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)