Already acknowledged as one of the brightest lights in the slowly dimming field of significant instrumentalists signed to major jazz labels, vibraphonist Stefon Harris makes an enormous leap as a composer and bandleader with “The Grand Unification Theory.” It’s an 11-movement jazz suite that Harris is performing in its entirety during his Jazz Bakery run, and although he’s employing musicians who don’t appear on the Blue Note recording of the work, this unit is locked in and working well as a team.
The themes Harris explores have antecedents from an assortment of jazz eras, especially the second wave of hard bop in the early 1960s pioneered by Freddie Hubbard as well as the funk and soul jazz that followed.
Band also headed into some free exercises — at one point every woodwind and horn player was improvising with just their mouthpieces — and the first half concluded in slow, calculated ensemble blowing, the sort of cadenza Roscoe Mitchell has employed with his large ensembles.
Harris took the bulk of the solos, and he was always fiery, inventive and intelligent. His remarkable talent found matches in tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield and trumpeter-flugelhornist Jeremy Pelt, whose intonation was impeccable and his solos striking. The work does have its too-serious moments, but fortunately, those are fleeting as funk rhythms emanated from the booming drums of Kim Thompson and this 12-tet joined in on the fun, smiling all the way.
Harris and his band will appear at the Jazz Standard in New York April 18-20.