At age 32, Stefon Harris has already earned multiple Grammy nominations, glowing reviews, and wide-spread respect from fellow musicians. But all accolades aside, Harris says it’s the joy of jazz that drives him most.
"I’m such a big fan of this music. I play just as hard if I’m playing for 2 people or 2000, I absolutely love it.. And I hope that that joy and enthusiasm always comes across and inspires other people. "
While in college Harris originally focused on a career in classical music, hoping to join the New York Philharmonic. Then, some fellow students introduced him to jazz… and specifically bebop.
"And I can remember one of the first records they played for me was Charlie Parker’s 'Now’s The Time.' And I remember a cat opening up a chart and showing me chord progressions and how they’re structured and what must be going through a person’s mind when they’re improvising. So initially I was completely fascinated with the music intellectually and the intellectual requirements of playing it. And then when I really started to listen on a deeper level, I could hear the personality, the intention, the spirit of Charlie Parker coming through."
(feature “Now’s The Time”)
Harris says he is constantly inspired by Charlie Parker and other jazz greats, whose music speaks to both mind and spirit. And in just the right proportions.
"If it’s too much on the intellectual side obviously you’re going to lose people and if it’s too much on the emotional side often it’s just noisy. Right? You need a balance of form and passion. Coltrane, for example, while on the one hand he had this incredible intellect and he clearly could see the world in a unique way, I always felt that he was telling the story of his people. Whenever I hear Coltrane’s music I hear the sound of an era, I hear politics, I hear the emotion in the streets, I hear all of that. I hear the love and compassion of that era."
(“Wise One” by Coltrane)
On his latest CD “Evolution,” Harris and his band have incorporated many of the sounds of this era: electronic instruments, hip hop rhythms, R&B production values. But not at the expense of jazz principles. The secret says Harris is something called the “thump element.”
"We were exploring, can you actually create a music that a lot of people can relate to that maintains that level of subtlety? Can you actually put a backbeat in there and still have dynamic nuance and rhythmic flexibility. So that’s the thump element, and it also exists in Swing. It’s really just that guttural feeling of everything lining up and being together and you can’t help but move your head. A word like thump is perfect because it’s so simplistic and everyone knows what you’re talking about once the music starts."
Stefon Harris is a virtuoso on his instrument, be it vibraphone or marimba. He is also an exceptional composer. He wrote and arranged all of the songs on his 2003 release “Grand Unification Theory,” featuring a 12-piece band including timpani, bass trombone and African percussion. One word that seems to describe Stefon Harris the composer is “creative.” Or maybe not.
"Creativity to me, it’s a strange statement, but I think it’s actually overrated. To say that I’m creating something would mean that I’m taking A and B and putting it together and I’m making AB or something. But when I think that way, I’m basically limited to what I already know. Whereas when I really listen, maybe I’ll come across Y, which is something that I’ve never imagined before. So it’s really that I’m discovering it. And once I relax when I’m writing and I just listen and write down what I hear, I always come up with things that half the time I can’t explain. I have to go back and analyze it after it’s written and then explain it."
Stefon Harris and Blackout begin their 5-night engagement in the Mondavi Center’s Studio Theatre tonight. As for what audiences can expect from the acclaimed, eclectic ensemble? Harris has an easy answer.
"And I always say expect the unexpected. We don’t know what’s gonna happen so we know you don’t know what’s gonna happen. Just expect us to have some fun hopefully and we’ll be there havin’ a good time. "