Arts

To vibraphone virtuoso Stefon Harris, tradition doesn’t mean ‘old music’

Stefon Harris
Deneka Peniston
Stefon Harris

Stefon Harris was taking a break from shoveling when he was reached by phone to discuss his upcoming show at the Regattabar. He’d had a rough time getting home from his performance in Newark the night before because of heavy snowfall in New Jersey, but was upbeat and engaging nonetheless.

And why wouldn’t he be? His new album with his band Blackout, “Sonic Creed,” their first in nearly a decade, had just topped the Jazz Radio airplay chart for the fifth straight week. Earlier this year, Harris, 45, received a Doris Duke Artist Award, financial support that encourages artists to take “creative risks and explore new ideas.” He was also voted top vibraphonist in DownBeat’s 2018 critics and readers polls, and graced the cover of the magazine’s November issue. And he’s now in his second year as associate dean and director of jazz arts at his alma mater, the Manhattan School of Music.

Harris has kept busy entrepreneurially as well, touting his ear-training app Harmony Cloud and giving talks to corporate groups on “the benefits of diversity of thought” and the “science of empathy.” In fact, the “sonic creed” giving his album its name can be boiled down to a catchphrase Harris utters twice during our conversation: “Jazz is empathy in action.”

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“The reason I made ‘Sonic Creed,’ ” Harris explains, “is because I make a record when I have something to say that I can’t figure out how to say in words, and music is the most articulate platform for me to express it. Given our social and political environment in the United States right now, and the way that African-Americans have been portrayed, I thought it was important to create a piece of art to document the fact that we are fathers, the fact that we are husbands. And also to elucidate the genius of our elders, and the fact that they’ve been passing on incredible information from one generation to the next. And it’s always been a value of mine that if I’m going to pay tribute to one of my elders, or my ancestors, I’m going to do it in a way that they would be proud of me.”

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To Harris and his bandmates, that means celebrating their heroes’ work from their own contemporary perspectives.

“Jazz is a music that’s constantly evolving, it doesn’t stay in one place,” notes saxophonist Casey Benjamin, who like drummer Terreon Gully has been with Blackout throughout its history (original pianist Marc Cary will rejoin them at the Regattabar, and Luques Curtis will be on bass). Benjamin illustrates his point with one of Duke Ellington’s most famous songs: “ ‘Sophisticated Lady’ was written for what they thought of as a sophisticated lady 80 years ago. It’s different now, so my interpretation will be a little different.”

The new album opens with “Dat Dere,” a Bobby Timmons composition made famous by Art Blakey, to which Oscar Brown Jr. added lyrics drawn partly from the perspective of an imaginative little boy. It’s followed by “Chasin’ Kendall,” a catchy Harris original inspired by his two young sons, and then a ballad for his wife, “Let’s Take a Trip to the Sky.”

Tributes to other jazz elders follow — Horace Silver’s “The Cape Verdean Blues,” Wayne Shorter’s “Go,” Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away,” Bobby Hutcherson’s “Now” — but the classic tunes are brought up to the moment via fresh arrangements.

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“I spent lots of time with Bobby Hutcherson,” says Harris, “and he’s an incredible influence on me as a man, but it doesn’t make sense for me to re-create a piece of music that he did many years ago in the same way. He already did it very, very well. But what I can do is leverage that creation and apply it to the need to tell our modern stories. Every person that we chose to celebrate on the album is because I’ve had a direct life experience with them. I spent time with Abbey Lincoln, and she said some things to me that changed my perspective on music very early. When Blackout first started, we would play in Los Angeles, and Horace Silver would come to the gigs, and we’d go and hang out with him. That’s why ‘Cape Verdean Blues’ is a part of this album.

“Every cut is there for a reason, including ‘Dat Dere,’ ” he continues. “The reason I chose ‘Dat Dere’ is because I’m deeply embedded in the field of education now. It’s one of my most dear passions. I’ve heard people use the term ‘the founding fathers of jazz education,’ and they never mention people like Art Blakey or Barry Harris or Dizzy Gillespie.”

Tradition and preservation are separate things to Harris, and it’s the former he’s most eager to embrace.

“I actually think that we are traditional jazz. If you take a look at the term ‘traditional,’ many times people are looking at it as if it’s old music. But the tradition of jazz has never been to play old music. The cultural tradition of jazz has always been to create a platform for the amplification of marginalized voices, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Those voices aren’t limited to jazz voices where Harris and Blackout are concerned. A cover of Michael Jackson’s “Gone Too Soon” closes out “Sonic Creed,” and the group recorded tunes by Stevie Wonder and George Gershwin on their previous album, “Urbanus.”

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“For me, there’s absolutely no difference between James Brown and John Coltrane,” says Harris. “Are you kidding me? These are people who walked the Earth during a similar era and [within] similar communities, and told stories of the same people through different perspectives.”

‘It’s always been a value of mine that if I’m going to pay tribute to one of my elders . . . I’m going to do it in a way that they would be proud of me.’

“It’s through art that marginalized communities allow other people to understand who they are,” Harris explains. “When Jewish people were marginalized in the United States, they used music as a platform for them to tell their stories. Jazz was a platform — and still is a platform — for African-Americans to articulate their life experiences, and it’s such a phenomenal creation and gift to all of the world that it’s open for anyone to tell their story. It’s not just about African- Americans, which is a testament to the brilliance of the people who created it. It’s in service of everyone on the planet.”

Stefon Harris & Blackout, featuring Casey Benjamin

At Regattabar, Cambridge, Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $35, 617-395-7757, www.regattabarjazz.com

Bill Beuttler can be reached at bill@billbeuttler.com.