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90 Miles featuring Stefon Harris, Nicholas Payton and David Sanchez

by Jeff Nania on April 24, 2013

Massry Center for the Arts, April 18


“It’s always a good sign when a jazz band tunes up,” Stefon Harris said as the group centered themselves, and then dipped right into their emphatic Afro-Cuban opener, “E’cha.”

Trumpeter Nicholas Payton’s solo on this one left me thinking that he is truly fearless. He can rip fast lines, but he can also hang on a note and sink it in to a texture. Rather than default to quick lines or stored licks, he takes his time and “turns left, and takes us on a musical journey,” according to Harris.

Harris, Payton, and saxophonist David Sanchez all took turns on the mic as they played host in between pieces.

“We’re gonna continue with a piece written by my mother’s favorite composer,” Payton said. “Me.”

Payton started his tune “The Backward Step” a capella in a true-to-form, thought-out way.

Whereas Payton remains cool and almost entirely still during his solo performances, Sanchez represents the opposite approach. He uses space like a blank canvas, and he is an action painter sparring with the texture. He rises on his toes, and backs away, and lunges, and otherwise uses body language to aid in instructing the rhythm section how to react.

“We’re going to change the pace,” Sanchez said, with “one of mine dedicated to the city of New Orleans.”

“The Forgotten Ones” was Sanchez’ ode to New Orleans, but it didn’t have a gumbo cooking on the snare drum. Instead, this entire piece was played as an ostinato tone poem. Sanchez’ physical sound changed from enormous and brash to tender and sweet in an instant; his sound and concept fell somewhere between Wayne Shorter and Mark Turner. Harris took the second solo on this one and his sound was so gentle and soft that you could actually hear his voice singing above the sound of his mallets.

Two classic Harris tunes were reimagined with this distinctive new configuration. “And This Too Shall Pass” is a Harris original that appeared on his first album A Cloud of Red Dust. Percussionist Mauricio Herrera started this one with a solo performance on the Bata drums as he sang and chanted. After a few minutes, Harris’ bass notes from his marimba snuck in and overlapped some of the frequencies of the lowest Bata drum, which created the perfect transition for the remaining band members to ease in and begin coloring the music.

“We’re going to conclude with one I wrote for my brother” in the armed forces, called “Black Action Figure,” Harris said. Invigorating grooves abounded on this one. Harris carried the melody, and the horns traded off playing along with the vibes. Then the bass, vibes and horns dropped away and we had the venerable piano trio composed of drummer Henry Cole, Herrera, and pianist Edward Simon, who were able to kill it in their own right.

“Man I love music,” Harris said. “We’re going tomorrow to Boston. People sent me e-mails saying how much they were looking forward to getting together.”

The wounds of the Boston Marathon were still fresh, and Harris wrapped it up succinctly saying that when they are on stage “we sell joy . . . we sell empathy.”