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Before he ever decides to step foot into a recording studio, Stefon Harris always asks himself one key question: “If I don't make this music now, will it exist in the world? If the answer is no, then I’m generally more compelled to do it.”
Nine years have passed since the last time the acclaimed vibraphonist found an answer to his liking. Now, driven in large part by recent shifts in the sociopolitical conversation as well as by his own personal growth, Harris has returned with the third album with his band Blackout, Sonic Creed (Motéma). The album is a further evolution of Blackout’s contemporary spin on the jazz tradition, recontextualizing the work of forebears like Bobby Hutcherson, Abbey Lincoln and Horace Silver through a modern perspective drawing on hip-hop, R&B, gospel and funk influences.
“There are times when you have music on your heart and on your mind that’s very close to what you just did a few years ago,” Harris says. “I feel like the market is flooded, and I don't know that the world is interested in every thought that I have. I’d rather take my time and grow as a man, as a human being, a father, a husband, a citizen, learn more about what’s happening in the world and then document that.”
Despite the lack of recordings under his own name, Harris has done much to facilitate that growth in the intervening years. He served a six-year tenure exploring the diverse and often knotty compositions of his peers in the SFJAZZ Collective; he traveled to Cuba with saxophonist David Sánchez and trumpeter Christian Scott, interacting with local musicians and releasing two albums with the Ninety Miles project; after a decade on the faculty of NYU, he took over as Associate Dean and Director of Jazz Arts at his alma mater, Manhattan School of Music, in 2017; he’s given presentations to Fortune 500 companies about jazz improvisation as an analogy for leadership techniques and, seeking to apply his passion for education to digital-age learning, he launched his Melodic Progression Institute with the ear-training app Harmony Cloud.
Perhaps most importantly, Harris’ two sons, ages 9 and 6, have grown up in the period following Blackout’s last release, 2009’s Urbanus, undoubtedly reframing the way he thinks about the issues facing young black men in today’s American landscape.
“At this particular moment in our society as it pertains to politics, economics, sociology, part of what’s on my mind is the marginalization of African-Americans,” he says. “We’re being painted in a light that is not complete. When I look at the culture that I grew up with, when I look at my ancestry, I see a great deal of intelligence, pride, drive and, ultimately, excellence. The narrative that’s being told right now was breaking my heart, and the best way to express myself is through my art.”
[caption id="attachment_14479" align="alignnone" width="1240"] “At this particular moment in our society as it pertains to politics, economics, sociology, part of what’s on my mind is the marginalization of African-Americans. We’re being painted in a light that is not complete.”[/caption]
Harris pays tribute to his sons on the new album with “Chasin’ Kendall,” the title of which is a play on the two boys’ middle names. Despite the heaviness of his thinking about society at large, a playful joy shines through the track, which echoes the sunny-day soul of classic singers like Donny Hathaway or Bill Withers. It was music like this that Harris heard as the communal soundtrack at family gatherings or block parties growing up in Albany, New York.
“I saw the power of music to bring together a community of people who were going through hard times and uplift their spirits,” he recalls. “My family would be dancing like it was the last day on earth, just letting it go. You would think that we were the wealthiest people on the entire planet, we had so much joy. But it was the music that amplified that for me.”
Even more powerfully, Harris watched the visceral reaction that congregants experienced to the music in the Pentecostal church where his mother was a minister. “I saw music have people off their feet, stomping and literally falling to the floor shaking, speaking in tongues. Music created a spell that had the entire congregation shouting at the top of their hearts and souls. So I was never confused about the purpose of music.”
What Harris wasn’t quite so clear on as a young man was what shape his music would ultimately take. At the age of 6 his family moved into an apartment with a “beat-up old piano,” where Harris found a stack of instructional books in the bench and began teaching himself to play. This placed him well in advance of his elementary school classmates, so to keep him occupied his teachers simply handed him instrument after instrument to satisfy his curiosity. By the time he reached middle school, Harris played 24 different instruments.
After seeing a local orchestra on television, Harris looked them up in the phone book and rode his bike to audition, setting him on a classical percussion path. But while studying at the prestigious Eastman School of Music, pianist Tamir Hendelman introduced him to the music of Charlie Parker, and Harris found his calling. “I had never heard anything that emotionally articulate before,” he remembers. “I couldn’t believe it was possible for someone to think that fast. Intellectually, I was completely floored, but separate from that was that spiritual side. That ability to sing your joy, to sing your pain, wasn’t the same in classical music for me. It was life-changing, and that’s what began the journey.”
The spiritual vein imparted to Harris in his mother’s church and stirred by his discovery of Bird continues into the music of Blackout, even as he has channeled it into more secular directions. (His 2003 concept album, The GrandUnification Theory, takes its worldview not from the Bible but from the writings of physicist Stephen Hawking.) It’s there in the gossamer yearnings of Sonic Creed’s second original, “Let’s Take a Trip to the Sky,” with Jean Baylor’s sinuous vocals; it’s equally strong in the steely melancholy of Blackout’s version of Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away,” featuring Casey Benjamin’s impassioned soprano.
Growing up in the church left Harris no doubt that music wasn’t an intellectual pursuit, but “was there to amplify the emotion behind the story that was being told.” He carried that purpose with him in his classical studies, and then into jazz, where trombonist Steve Turre recognized it at Harris’ first audition for Manhattan School of Music. “First and foremost, Stefon communicates,” Turre says. “He puts something out there that you can feel. Of course he’s got tremendous technique, ridiculous technique, but that’s not what stood out to me. When I first heard him play, he played in sentences and in paragraphs and told a story.”
[caption id="attachment_14480" align="alignnone" width="1240"] “If it’s just about entertainment and flashing lights, we don’t stand a chance against the likes of Beyoncé. We have to have a deeper purpose in order to stay relevant.”[/caption]
Though it might sound contradictory for a band so immersed in the sound of its time, Blackout was born out of Harris’ desire to carry on what he saw as the tradition of jazz — which he felt was being done a disservice by the throwback attitude of the Young Lions generation. “We think it’s really important to pay tribute to our elders in the way that they would want us to pay tribute to them,” he insists. “The concept of copying sounds from the past is actually counter-intuitive to the value of jazz itself, which has always been an art form that’s about documenting the here and now.”
Harris had begun working with drummer Terreon Gully on The Grand Unification Theory, his fourth release for Blue Note. Coming from similar musical backgrounds, they found their music naturally leaning toward a more hybrid style that folded in elements of hip-hop and R&B as well as earlier fusion styles. “When I was brought up,” Gully says, “jazz was Basie, Ellington, the Woody Herman Big Band; but it was also Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Steps Ahead, Yellowjackets. I was fortunate that when I first got into it, jazz encompassed more than one style or one period. The tradition of jazz has always been a reflection of now, but for a good period of time, specifically in the ’90s, jazz was pretty stagnant. With Blackout, we came with the idea of playing music that reflected us.”
That “us” soon expanded to include the like-minded peers that comprised Blackout on the band’s 2004 debut, Evolution. Harris and Gully enlisted Casey Benjamin, whose vocoder crooning and effects-altered saxophone would also become a key element in the similarly oriented Robert Glasper Experiment; keyboardist Marc Cary, who was as rooted in the raw funk energy of Washington D.C.’s go-go scene as in the jazz chops he honed under the demanding tutelage of Betty Carter; and Philly-born bassist Darryl Hall, whose upright grooves reflected his electric background. By the time of Urbanus, Ben Williams had stepped in for Hall, and the bass chair has changed again on Sonic Creed; it’s now held by Joshua Crumbly. In addition, rising wunderkind James Francies has stepped in for Cary, bringing a next-generation outlook into the Blackout sound. “When other people come into our sphere, we allow the music to flex,” Harris says. “It’s not about my vision, it’s about the expression of individuality. So in the end, what you get is the amplification of the entire community’s ambition, and when you amplify all the voices of a community, that’s when you have the potential for greatness and the potential for innovation.”
Harris chooses to showcase that innovation through Blackout’s transformations of compositions by jazz masters that have been influences and mentors for the band. Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere” opens the album as an urgent, insistent soul sermon pierced by the stinging lines of Mike Moreno’s guitar, while the island jaunt of Horace Silver’s “The Cape Verdean Blues” detours into a thicket of dense harmonies and chamber music refinements. Wayne Shorter’s “Go” surges with a taut funk-rock edge, while “Now” luxuriates in Bobby Hutcherson’s stately melody, deeply moving in the interlaced lines of Harris’ vibes, Regina Carter’s violin, Felix Peikli’s clarinet and Elena Pinderhughes’ flute.
“When you hear the original versions of these songs, they’re clearly a reflection of where [the artists] were in the world,” Harris says. “When you hear our versions, I’d like to think that it’s exactly the same thing: an expression of where we are right now as a people. In the long run, I think that’s why we’re valuable to society. If it’s just about entertainment and flashing lights, we don’t stand a chance against the likes of Beyoncé. We have to have a deeper purpose in order to stay relevant, and I think our primary purpose as artists is to document the world around us so that future generations understand something about themselves.”
If that seems like a lofty goal for a jazz album, it’s one that Harris models on some of the most revered creative minds that have come before him. Each of them faced their own struggles, both personal and cultural, and the most important of them fought against the strife of their times while giving audiences an escape from them. It may be that, more than anything else, that has finally compelled Harris to reconvene Blackout for another run.
“When I think about the greatest artists of this particular art form,” he says, “they were all so much more than creative. They were revolutionaries, they were storytellers, they were sonic griots. What is the sound of the political strife of the ’60s? You gotta go to James Brown, you gotta go to John Coltrane. For the sound of the ’70s, you gotta deal with Earth Wind and Fire, you gotta deal with Miles Davis. When you think about what was happening in the world during the Great Depression, there’s a sound to that. There’s that struggle to find a place to celebrate, even though the world seems to be falling apart around you.” - Shaun Brady [caption id="attachment_14481" align="alignnone" width="1240"] Photos by: Deneka Peniston[/caption]