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Stefon Harris: Authenticity and Audacity

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STEFON HARRIS Authenticity is a special word for vibraphone wizard Stefon Harris when it comes to his art, which springs from the tradition of jazz music, but is approached through a modern lens that takes into account the sounds and perspective of 2009.

He has enough audacity—also a special word for Harris—to say it clearly, to elucidate what he is going for in his music. And he has enough audacity on the bandstand to go for it.

"It's one of President Obama's favorite words," the effervescent, upbeat Harris says with a chuckle [The current U.S. president became associated with the word from his book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Crown, 2006), when he was still a U.S. senator]. "It's a really important cultural element of this art form [jazz]. You have to believe and feel that anything can happen. You've got to have confidence that you can take a risk beyond your own ability and know that everyone around you is listening, and we're going to support each other, and we're going to make whatever happens work in that moment."

That's how he approaches jazz with his band, Blackout, that has been together for about five years. Harris, 36, loves the group and wants his music to be relevant today, emblematic of what's happening "in the here and now." That doesn't mean rehashing bebop or standard swing music, but it does spring from that. He's not one to push the tradition aside.

Of his art, he says adamantly, "I think it's about what's happening right now. I think words like 'creativity' in jazz are overrated. The real word that should be put forward is authenticity. It's not always creativity that the consumer reacts to. I think they react to what's real. For me, it's not about creativity. You can take a cat and a dog, put them together and squeeze them in rhythm and call it creative. But it doesn't make it authentic and it doesn't make it move people.

"So it's not about what's happening five years from now. I don't know what's going to happen five years from now. I'm concerned about what's happening right now and making sure I can play some role in a positive light in what's going on right now in the world."

His music has many elements and it aspires to be as representative of today as it is improvisational and unexpected. The latest documentation of where Harris stands is Urbanus, (2009), his first for Concord Records after a decade with Blue Note.

Of the tradition, he says, "For me, as an African-American, it's part of the reason I get up. Jazz is not just fun for me. This is my cultural heritage. When I look at the great Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
, Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
, Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
, John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, as we go down the line, I feel a great deal of pressure, and honor, to be striving to be a part of this legacy. In terms of the tradition, I think more in terms of legacy. It's very important to me as a man. It's inspired me to continue moving forward in life, separate from music."

Stefon Harris / BlackoutBut, he adds, "In terms of the way tradition is perceived in the jazz world in general, I think it's a misnomer. When people say tradition, they're generally thinking of older music. They're thinking bebop is traditional jazz. But if you really look at the cultural jazz—and what jazz really is—the real tradition of jazz is that of spontaneity. It has elements of creativity. And it's very much about authenticity and reflecting the here and now. That's what Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
did. That's what Miles Davis did. When you hear John Coltrane, you hear the story of what was going on in the 60s. You can feel what was going on in the world at that time. John Coltrane was telling the same story that James Brown
James Brown
James Brown
1933 - 2006
vocalist
was telling at that time; just from a different lens. The real tradition of jazz is what we're doing.

"For me to play bebop tunes from the 40s, that's not the tradition of jazz. If John Coltrane was imitating and transcribing Sidney Bechet
Sidney Bechet
Sidney Bechet
1897 - 1959
sax, soprano
, then I'd say okay, to imitate is the tradition of jazz. But that's not what he did and what it is. Swing is a part of the tradition and it's a part of the here and now. We integrate the backbeat, we integrate go-go, we integrate swing. Anything that's a modern influence on us. It doesn't exclude anything. It's just about authenticity, ultimately."

Chapter Index
  1. Urbanus
  2. The Perception of Jazz
  3. Beginnings
  4. Learning from Elders


Urbanus

Harris says when he approaches a CD, it's not so much about creating new ideas, but rather documenting the band and the music as it stands at the moment. Urbanus, he says, is a continuation of what Blackout did on its Evolution (Blue Note, 2004) album. "For me, music is about authenticity. It's about reflecting the here and now. It has very little, if anything at all, to do with the past. It's about being honest; being authentic. Whatever our influences are now, and from our background, we included all of that in the music."

"You'll notice that the first song, 'Gone,' has a go-go feel. Two members of the ensemble, Marc Cary
Marc Cary
Marc Cary

piano
(keyboards) and Ben Williams (bass), are both from D.C. (The go-go beat is funk style said to have originated there, pioneered by musicians like singer Chuck Brown and drummer and Miles Davis alumni Ricky Wellman). They grew up playing in go-go bands. It's part of their cultural heritage. So we included all of that in the music. My background is included. The drummer's (Terreon Gully) background. It's about authenticity."

The album includes a cover of Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder
b.1950
keyboard
's "They Won't Go (When I Go)" that has saxophonist Casey Benjamin playing the vocoder, which emits a combination electronic/vocal singing style, another color the band uses to express itself. "Christina" is a ballad composed by bassist Buster Williams
Buster Williams
Buster Williams
b.1942
bass
, and shows the soft side of these young musicians. It also employs the vocoder for the delicate theme and creates an ethereal mood during Benjamin's refined improvisation. "Langston's Lullaby" {co-written with Benjamin) who was named after Harris' young son, who in turn was named after the Harlem poet, novelist and playwright Langston Hughes. It's a delicious composition, each musician showing restraint in their approaches, properly conveying the beauty of the song. Bebop master Jackie McLean
Jackie McLean
Jackie McLean
1932 - 2006
sax, alto
's "Minor March" is the closest the band comes on the CD to mainstream, bop-ish jazz, They all have the chops for it.

Harris, one of the finest vibes players out there, plays throughout with the confidence that one would expect, but—to his credit—he doesn't throw himself out front and make the others subservient.

"Culturally, [Urbanus] is where we're coming from. It's not so much about the individual. It's about a sense of community. It's about the five of us coming together. Listening, loving and respecting one another. Doing something that's much larger than the individual. We're much stronger together than we are apart. It's one of the things about the culture of jazz. It's a little bit different than a lot of other art forms. I think in jazz, that's one of the most prominent, significant cultural messages that we bring forth."

"We have 'Gone,' which is a Gil Evans
Gil Evans
Gil Evans
1912 - 1988
composer/conductor
piece [based on "Gone, Gone, Gone," from George Gershwin
George Gershwin
George Gershwin
1898 - 1937
composer/conductor
's "Porgy and Bess"]. But we do it in a modern way. We look for vehicles to express our cultural backgrounds and that we feel we can be authentic with... As soon as I heard that song, I could feel it immediately. It's one of the best pieces of music ever written in jazz. Gil Evans is just pure genius. His arranging is unbelievable. I went and transcribed it and tried to take a peek at every single note that he wrote and learned a whole bunch. But the key is not for me to re-create what Gil Evans did. That would be sad. What would happen is, the world would miss out on the sound of my generation. My generation definitely has a sound. We're serious about it and we're coming," he says chuckling at the notion. "We're here. I think right now our voices have been a little muted. But the time is here. Jazz is really going to sound like the here and now."

"I love each and every one of these guys," Harris said in earnest. "These are my brothers. We're going to roll forward and keep our ears open. It's inevitable. Once you get out of the mindset that jazz is of the institution and that it's about chords and scales, and that the real face of jazz is the face of the people, so to speak, it's inevitable that it will continue to change. It will continue to evolve. All great art has always been a reflection of a group of people, of a region, of a moment in time. It's not about the mathematics associated with music. That's for me to worry about.



"Five years from now, the world is going to be very different. If we're honest musicians and we're authentic culturally, our music is going to sound very different and continue to grow and flourish."

Harris is fond of the new music and the hard work the entire band put in for the project. "With Blackout, it really is a band. It's not about me. It's about every member of the ensemble. Everyone contributes songs. Everyone contributes arrangements. It goes wherever the moment goes. Everyone's invested in this project, more so than just working for me... I definitely don't feel like there's anything I could have done in that moment. I prepared well in advance. I spiritually get in shape. I physically get in shape. I make sure I'm ready for the moment we walk into the studio... I'm really excited about it. There's a lot of ambiguity around the definition of jazz. I'm very confident we're making a statement about jazz origins, where it comes from, what it's really about and that it is a music that is incredibly viable and valid."

The recording was done in days leading up to the inauguration of President Obama. "I think it's inevitable that that moment (inauguration of the first African-American president) instilled in all of us a great sense of pride," says Harris. "The group Blackout, the music that we do is greatly influenced by the African-American diaspora. This is black music that we're creating. If you look at the Stevie Wonder track. Everything we do is coming from that influence. Culturally, all of this is coming together for us. It's a really special moment for us."

Like all bands that remain together, there is not only musical growth, but a chemistry among members that are open to the process. For such groups, playing in the moment comes easier; appears in a collective form, not just individually. "Your instincts just line right up and the chemistry gets stronger and stronger over time, so that you don't need to go too far with the planning," Harris says. "The CD actually happens on the bandstand over the five years. Trying new things. There are things that happen spontaneously, that we start to write down, that turn into some of the arrangements that you hear on the CD. It's a very organic approach to jazz."

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