Two of jazz’s brightest rising stars formed a potent double bill Friday night at Royce Hall. Lizz Wright has just started her ascent; Stefon Harris is arguably up there already as the top vibraphonist of his generation and perhaps beyond. Yet Harris’ trenchant recent description of what jazz could be (“We grew up listening to music that thumped. We love jazz and respect it and we think jazz should thump.”) actually applied more to Wright’s set than to his own. While Harris’ current band, Blackout, treated jazz as a thicket of admirable if often cerebral complexity, Wright’s set really thumped.
Harris and Blackout’s recent album “Evolution” (Blue Note) signaled another stylistic shift for Harris. Like many of the young lions these days, Harris has liberated himself from the neo-bop Gospel According to Wynton and embraced the electronics and R&B influences of his youth as part of his music.
But this time, Harris seemed content to field an almost all-acoustic quintet that stayed mostly within the parameters of 1965 Miles Davis post-bop, though with the fascinating quick changes from section to section that mark Harris’ growing skill as a composer-leader. Harris often treated the vibraphone and marimba as a single instrument — with the marimba forming the bass end — producing rich harmonic textures in the manner of a pianist. While “Evolution” was anchored by Marc Cary’s Fender-Rhodes electric piano, Aaron Goldberg’s acoustic grand piano set the table at Royce, with only rare electronic visits from his synthesizer and pitch-following effects on Casey Benjamin’s plugged-in alto sax.
Meanwhile, backed only with acoustic guitar, bass guitar and a great percussionist (Jeff Haynes) laying down pounding grooves with his bare hands, Wright was mesmerizing. Her pure, sustained, silky voice soared majestically over the beat and hypnotic guitar licks, turning a pop tune like “A Taste of Honey” into a quasi-Delta blues, or “Nature Boy” into a commanding yet resigned chant over African drumming.
In only a couple of years, Wright has come a long, long way. The pacing of her set is greatly improved, her expressive abilities are deepening, and though Wright has been compared mostly with so-called jazz singers so far, her stage presence currently bears a closer kinship to that of Miriam Makeba. Makeba would admire the way Wright grabbed the audience immediately and held it right through to the closing hand-clapping spiritual, “Walk With Me, Lord.”