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Stefon Harris: Pursuing the Tradition

R.J. DeLuke By

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The idea that we should just copy and recreate music from the past is not actually the cultural tradition of the art form. —Stefon Harris
Musician and composer Stefon Harris wears many hats. But he wears them all well.

He is a composer, performer, bandleader, businessman, educator and leadership trainer. He handles each with a clear head, confidence and sense of purpose. He's bright, articulate and relates to people on any level.

Harris' to-do list on any given day can involve the fact that he is associate dean and director of the Arts Department at the Manhattan School of Music. He also runs an app company called the Melodic Progression Institute that has produced an app for musicians called Harmony Cloud. In January 2019, the company will release a major update to that software. It's dedicated to helping musicians learn how to play by ear, "so that they can connect with human beings all over the world in unfamiliar environments," says Harris.

Meanwhile, his leadership training is done in the corporate world. Harris talks about team dynamics and how to get the best out of a business team, usually illustrating those ideas by bringing a band with him.

"It's fascinating, because it's one thing to talk to someone about an idea and it's another when you demonstrate in music," says Harris. "Not only do we show what goes right, we show when things go wrong. Then we show how to change your approach in how you are communicating with other people. You can immediately feel the change in the music and you feel much more connected emotionally. Art has the potential to create an 'A-ha' moment in a way that words seem to fall short of."

Then there's his life calling as a musician. He plays vibraphone, writes music and performs at times with other stars of jazz. Harris, leading his longstanding band Blackout, has put out a 2018 album, Sonic Creed (Motéma), his first with the band since Urbanus (Concord) in 2009. The band will get a chance to go out on the road before long, doing dates in support of the music. For many musicians it's what they thrive on. For Harris, too. But it's also kind of a nice breather.

"I'm actually looking forward to it," he says, "because I'm involved in a lot of different endeavors from education to app development to doing corporate presentations. So I'm actually really excited to get back on the stage and express what's in my heart and connect with human beings. It's a blessing to be able to play music for a living.*

The recording has only two Harris compositions. This time, it's a tribute to some of his heroes and there are covers of songs by Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver, Abbey Lincoln, Bobby Timmons and one of his vibraphone idols, Bobby Hutcherson. The music isn't a reproduction. That's never part of his vision. He is true to himself and his music.

"Part of the concept of Sonic Creed is to pay reverence to our elders and to make music that is directly relevant to us," says Harris. "When we pay tribute to our elders, we try to pay tribute in a way that our elders would want us to. The idea that we should just copy and re-create music from the past is not actually the cultural tradition of the art form. It's an art form about documenting the here and now and telling stories in an authentic way as possible.

"Another important element is that the music we chose to amplify on this album is all music of people that we've had direct life experiences with. I've spent time Abbey Lincoln. I've spent lots if time with Bobby Hutcherson and played with him. I was able to spend time with Horace Silver and Wayne Shorter. This music is a direct reflection of my life experience and my development as a man."

Harris says the band is constantly growing. They convene periodically to document "that point in history, what's happening in the world, as authentically as we possibly can. Then we part ways. Because Blackout is really a band of leaders. Everyone is a composer. Everyone has their own music, their own ensemble. We spend time apart, growing in our own spaces. Then we come back together every couple of years and bring all of that new excitement and energy together to create something unique and special. So this current project is perfectly timed. Everyone in the band has been out and busy doing exciting things. When we came back together in the studio, the chemistry absolutely incredible. The album came together in one of the most effortless situations I've ever been a part of."

The band includes James Francies on piano, Casey Benjamin on sax, Terreon Gully on drums, Mike Moreno on guitar, Joshua Crumbly on bass and Felix Peikly on clarinet, with guest spots from people including Pedrito Martinez on percussion and Elena Pinderhughes on flute. The music was recorded over three days.

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