Stefon Harris’ second album for Blue Note, “Black Action Figure,” is the most exciting new jazz disc of the year. With a seven-piece unit, the young vibraphonist Harris demonstrates that he has the goods to propel jazz into the 21st century without resting on the accomplishments of his predecessors. He paid tribute to one of those earlier vibe masters, Bobby Hutcherson, in his first set Wednesday and demonstrated how much he can bring to quartet jazz, providing spark after spark in a driving and unrelenting ensemble performance.
Harris tackled the title track from his new album first, weaving solos that wander down linear avenue after linear avenue. His band engaged him in a nice tug of war at times, providing a roaring undercurrent that gave the music a refreshing density. Pianist Billy Childs presented a slicing counterpoint to Harris’ melodic strings, prodding rather than dueling as they embarked on a journey of reinforced steps. Best of all, Harris and his band deliver invigorating music at every turn, boldly stating phrase upon phrase, even turning the ballad “Collage” into a call to arms.
When Harris took a break, though, the band’s swirling music was sometimes difficult to assimilate as each instrumentalist pushed individual personalities onto the melodies. With a ferocity that recalled early Tony Williams, drummer Nasheet Waits delivered a lengthy solo that evoked a war zone. It started with the tom-toms replicating a march and the barking of orders as the snare suggested gunfire; as the solo built up speed, the mayhem of a guerrilla attack took shape until Waits returned his slightly orchestrated solo to tenuous calm. Had he been displaying a variety of rhythmic patterns throughout the evening, his solos would have been more impressive, but in this context he was a propeller on overdrive.
Childs, as usual, presented a distinct approach to the piano that pays little heed to the instrument’s dominant forefathers. He gave Harris room to let his mallets fly and quickly dove into a maelstrom when the leader completed his solos. Tonally, Childs revealed complexities that haven’t shown up on his solo albums yet commanded the small audience’s attention from start to finish.