Jazz vibraphonist Stefon Harris has steadily amassed an impressive discography with several critically acclaimed albums to his credit. His latest album Sonic Creed was recorded with his Blackout ensemble and includes homages to several influences as well as two new originals. Harris spoke recently with ArkivJazz about his influences and the writing and recording of Sonic Creed.
ArkivJazz: Stefon, I must say this is truly an extraordinary disc. It has a great feel all the way through.
Stefon Harris: I appreciate that – it’s definitely a labor of love. I tend not to want to make a lot of records and try not to make one unless I feel that I have something to say, and I have no choice other than to say it.
AJ: I think of your legacy at Blue Note where you had seven recordings as a leader. Those were really great discs – the sound, the arrangements, and the album covers.
SH: Thanks. It’s funny, I signed with Blue Note when I was still in college…
AJ: Were you really?
SH: Yeah, I was still in college at that time.
AJ: What really struck me with the new album were the tonal aspects and the variety of textures that you put together through this whole disc. Each tune seems to have its own architecture.
SH: I remember speaking with Greg Osby years ago about some newer CDs, and he had this great test he called the “needle test.” He said if you had a record player, and you dropped a needle anywhere on a song, you should be able to pick it up and drop it somewhere else and know that it’s a different song. He said that many times people are writing songs that are very similar to one another. So when I’m arranging, I’m definitely trying to bring together the instruments that are most specifically going to articulate the color and emotional characteristics of a specific song, so that way every song on an album should have its own space. Then, the task is to figure out how it all holds together.
AJ: One of the tunes that makes me smile every time I hear it is “Chasin’ Kendall.”
SH: Oh, yeah…
AJ: That’s one of your two originals on the album, and with the loping ostinato rhythm throughout the whole tune, I just get the feeling of a little kid moving.
SH: Yeah, “Chasin’ Kendall” is actually dedicated to both of my sons. My older son’s middle name is Chase, and my younger son's middle name is Kendall, so it’s a little play on words.
SH: But, you know, I love and appreciate that you said that it makes you smile because that was completely my intent. I always think of music as something that needs to serve a function in our lives, because it’s not just entertainment. With that song, I was thinking about my children and about these backyard parties we used to have when I grew up. There would be a lot of soul music playing during the BBQ, and the songs always had these really soulful bass lines, that generated a feeling of family, and soul, and joy. With that song, I spent a lot of time just messing around with a bass line until I caught one and then put a soulful melody on top.
AJ: Yeah, it’s fantastic. You really get the feeling of a happy kid just walking. All the tunes on the disc seem to have a distinctly different atmosphere from each other.
SH: I’ve tried over the years not to fall into the trap of having music that is generated simply by creative ideas. To me, music is supposed to be a sonic articulation of a people or an experience of a time in the world. It should be of something very specific. Everything on the album is a direct life experience that I’ve had. The people I’m paying tribute to are people that I know, that I’ve sat down and had dinner with, that I’ve been on the bandstand with, and those I've learned from. The music is ultimately a reflection of the here and now and not just a tribute to the past. My goal, and what I believe to be my responsibility as an artist, is to articulate the voices of our communities here and now.
AJ: Well, you get a feel for that all throughout this disc, and you also have a great cover of “The Cape Verdean Blues.”
SH: Thanks a lot.
AJ: That’s an irresistible tune to begin with and I love the polyrhythmic ending, where everything comes together at the end.
SH: I appreciate that. Horace Silver is one of the ultimate icons of the art form, and one of the things I love most about Horace’s writing was that it was always culturally articulate. It was very intelligent and always imaginative, but never apologized for the culture from which it was derived.
AJ: Yes, indeed.
SH: When I first heard that melody, I fell in love with it because you can’t get it out of your head once you’ve heard it. One of the things I do when I arrange is that I give myself carte blanche to explore anything I choose with the exception of the melody. I think the melody is the heart and soul of a piece of music, so I rarely change anyone’s melody. I think of it as – they’re all tools, for me to translate that original piece of music, paying tribute to those who have directly influenced our lives, but we’re doing it in a way they would expect us to do it.
SH: We’re of the mindset that this is an art form that is not derived from simply copying sounds of the past. It has always been a revolutionary art form and one that is a sound of the here and now.
AJ: Well, a lot of that is brought home in that you’re going from Horace Silver to Wayne Shorter, and make both of these tunes sound really fresh. Also, the classic synth sounds you put in there really turned my head.
SH: You know, one of the things I love about jazz is that a lot of it is unpredictable. You get brilliant people together, you put them in a situation to make music, and you get out of their way. So, a lot of times there are takes where there is no synthesizer, and there are takes where it just comes up. No one’s telling the pianist what to play or when to play it – we just get out of the way and allow him to express himself. That way, the music is unpredictable for us even when we’re in the studio.
AJ: Right, it needs to be unpredictable...and it needs to be different live.
SH: That’s right.
AJ: You also have an Abbey Lincoln song on the album…
SH: I’ll tell you, Abbey is one of my greatest influences as an artist. I really learned how to phrase by listening to vocalists like Shirley Horn, Abbey Lincoln, and Nancy Wilson. That particular piece is one that we had been horsing around with an arrangement on the road. When we came into the studio, it was at the end of the day and we were all a little tired. Terreon (drummer Terreon Gully) had the idea to just throw the arrangement out, turn out the lights and record [laughs]. So, we turned out the lights, and it was pitch black. It’s funny that you mention the electronics because the pianist was actually playing piano on the first take of that song, then we stopped and turned off the lights, and this otherworldly keyboard sound just happened. None of us knew it was going to happen.
AJ: You’re kidding!
SH: It was totally unpredictable. James (keyboardist James Francies) didn’t even play the chord progression of the tune, so I had no idea what he was doing. He played a chord, and I just used my ear to follow along with him at the beginning. We didn’t know that we were going to play “Throw it Away,” but somehow, right at the end of what turned out to be an intro, I was able to just play a little bit of the melody, and the bass player caught the tempo from there. Yeah, so it was "lights out" and we just trusted each other. It’s funny, one of my favorites moments on that particular song was how we ended it. You would have thought there was a conductor in the room, telling us all when to stop. We were just all deeply connected and listening to one another. We were obedient children of the music, and it took us to the right place.
AJ: It sounds like you really captured the magic.
SH: That’s right! It’s funny because we actually recorded a lot of other pieces with the intent to include them, but this one made it on the album. I ended up leaving off five other pieces of music, but, you have to pay attention to what’s available at that moment, and just do whatever’s necessary to bring it to life.
AJ: Something tells me those pieces will rise to the top one of these days.
SH: I hope so….they’re all ready to go.
AJ: Just don’t erase them!
SH: [Laughs] You know, there’s another good story with the Bobby Hutcherson piece, “Now.” Obviously, Bobby is one of my greatest influences, and I knew I wanted to do that piece. We had worked on the strings and the basic orchestration and then invited Jean Baylor to sing the lyrics. In the middle of the session, Jean had an idea for the vocal arrangement. Everyone left the studio, and Jean went upstairs into the booth and started layering voices. There’s something like...16 voices that were layered in the background to create that palette. I had no idea that she was going to do that, and I really don’t know that she knew she was going to do it. She went up in the booth and just kept trying things over and over again, and created that incredible vocal arrangement. It was created that day, in the moment.
AJ: Wow, that’s really capturing the magic...
SH: Yeah, and again, that’s what I love about this art form. I celebrate the idea that this really is about community…it’s about sometimes disparate voices coming together, but having love, trust, and respect for one another, and getting out of the way to allow the music to be what it needs to be.
AJ: You close the album with a song that everyone connects with…Michael Jackson’s “Gone Too Soon.”
SH: You know, when I think about Michael Jackson and what happened when he passed away, I was really brokenhearted because it seemed that many people were making fun of his life. For me as a child, his artistry really changed my life…not only as a musician, but as an entertainer, and a personality. Then, there’s this other element of Michael that I find really important. It’s the idea that there’s this black man from Gary, Indiana, who probably experienced all types of drama, somehow had the fortitude to continue to dedicate his life to passion, and love, and empathy. So, even when we go through trying times, we need heroes like that, people who always know the value and power of love. It’s not about jazz, or classical, or R&B, it’s that he is a sonic representative of black culture in America, and I thought it was very fitting to pay tribute to him in this way.
AJ: Yeah, when I heard the song I thought that you were overdubbing yourself, but that’s not you on the vibes, is it?
SH: No, it’s one of my former students (Joe Doubleday), and again, that’s one of those cultural traditions where we actually learn to play this music from direct experience. I got to play with Joe Henderson, Max Roach, and lots of other icons, and it’s important for me to try and create the same opportunities for the next generation. I’ll tell you that Joe Doubleday is a phenomenal musician and that the recording on the album is a first take.
AJ: Wow! Yeah, I can believe it with the level of playing from you guys. It’s just such a gorgeous, beautiful ending for the disc.
SH: I appreciate that. When I’m looking for songs, I love pieces of music that just play themselves…
SH: Those are the songs where you don’t have anything to prove [laughs]. You know, in jazz we have this heavy focus on our ability to solo and to impress people, but when you have a beautiful piece of music like that, all you have to do is play the melody and dance a little bit around the spirit of the melody, and the magic will happen.
AJ: In a lot of ways, the hard work has been done and you just need to keep moving it forward.
SH: That’s right, that’s right.