Stefon Harris: Authenticity and Audacity

R.J. DeLuke By

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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, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, 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."

But, 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 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 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, 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."


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 (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'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, 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'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.
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