Vibist Stefon Harris arrived at Catalina Bar & Grill on Friday night, riding the crest of a wave of rhapsodic reviews from New York newspapers. With his first album as a leader--"A Cloud of Red Dust" (Blue Note)--just released, he already is being labeled one of the major new jazz arrivals of the late '90s.
Pretty heady stuff for a player still in his mid-20s. But Harris' performance in his opening set fully justified the acclaim. It not only indicated a rapidly forming major talent, but it did so on an instrument that possesses limited potential for emotive expression.
Sticking close to the material on his new album, Harris produced one impressive solo after another. Relatively small and compact, he confronted his vibes with the kind of intense focus one sees when Keith Jarrett sits before a piano keyboard. Harris, similarly, seemed to be in a kind of passionate communication with his instrument, connecting to it via movements of his mallets so rapid that they blurred into arcs and whirls of light. Often he paused, staring intently at the bars of the vibes, waiting for another burst of inspiration to whip through his body, out of his mallets and into the instrument.
What emerged from these encounters was constantly compelling: solos filled with complimentary sounds and silences, driven by a vital sense of swing and a rich understanding of harmony.
Harris' set was aided immensely by the presence of pianist Billy Childs, making his initial appearance with the ensemble. Despite his unfamiliarity with the music, Childs--a gifted composer in his own right--quickly got on track with Harris. The results were impressive, in Childs' intuitive grasp of the music, as well as in the brisk tossing back and forth of ideas in their soloing.
By the close of the set, Harris--who also communicated volubly with his full-house audience--had made a convincing case for his glowing notices. He is, by almost any standard, a jazz star on the ascendancy.