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THE GENE Harris Quartet turned in a smart, stylish, swinging and soulful performance Thursday evening, inaugurating a new series of Artpark-at-Canisius presentations. This is the shiny silver lining of the dark economic cloud that forced Artpark to curtail sharply its 1995 spring jazz season.

Pianist Harris was originally slated to do three nights at the Artpark-at-the-Church venue in Lewiston, a fine setting for music, but somewhat limited in seating capacity. Given the need for maximizing box office receipts and Harris' proven drawing power, Artpark moved Thursday and Friday's performances to the much larger Canisius College Cultural Center. The center is located in the former St. Vincent's Church on Main Street in Buffalo.

The cavernous space was only about a third full, but when Harris and associates Ron Eschete (guitar), Luther Hughes (bass), and Paul Humphrey (drums) eased into their stealth introduction to "Sweet Georgia Brown," the crowd and the quartet merged into one big happy family. A gently insistent bass figure supports Harris' relaxed phrasing of the tune in an arrangement that combines familiarity with freshness.

Much has been made of Harris' down-home, deep blue, funky approach to jazz, but that sort of view only scratches the surface of his art. He crafts his performances and arrangements carefully and skillfully and his quartet executes them with grace and precision as well as soul and heart.

In fact, Harris' arrangements extend beyond the confines of a single tune. His sets often take on the character of miniature suites, with one piece blending seamlessly into the next. A boppish excursion through "Will You Still Be Mine" moves into an extended, rolling, bluesy tag ending which gradually transforms itself into a rhapsodic introduction to "Can't Help Loving That Man of Mine."

The complementary yet contrasting solo-like approaches of Harris and guitarist Eschete provide a great part of the group's balance. On blues pieces, they play off each other's deep feelings for the idiom. On standards, Eschete constructs totally new melodic structures while Harris regularly samples the original melodic line in his flights of fancy.

Humphrey is a highly melodic drummer as well as a classic timekeeper. His breaks on "The Best Things In Life Are Free" (a rather unusual choice of material for jazz treatment) were a high point of the second set. Bassist Hughes took some fine solo breaks himself, but most of his work was lost in the reverberant sound of the hall or distorted by the ill-adjusted sound reinforcement system. The all-brick interior of the edifice is inhospitable to instrumental music.

The Gene Harris Quartet

The great jazz/blues pianist begins a three-day residence in Buffalo.

Thursday evening at Canisius College Cultural Center. Repeated at 8 tonight at Canisius and Saturday at Artpark-in-the-Church, Lewiston.

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