Stefon Harris’ Nurturing Spirit

  I  
Image

Stefon Harris’ latest album, Sonic Creed, includes a number of original compositions, as well as “Now,” a track written by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.

(Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz)

“With one note he completely galvanized all the musicians to create something that was far greater than he could have done on his own,” Harris said.

Amid the tributes to the masters, the new album gives exposure to a lesser-known writer, Lasean Keith Brown, whose Caribbean-inflected “Song Of Samson” follows “Go.” Gully suggested the tune, which underlines Harris’ keen understanding of the vibraphone’s rhythmic role as he, Gully and percussionist Pedrito Martinez negotiate some tricky interplay.

“Stefon leaves enough space and gives enough support,” Gully said.

In addition to suggesting that tune, Gully was integral to sparking one of the recording session’s most powerful moments. As the band was struggling to find a way into Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away,” the drummer suggested turning off the studio lights. The sudden darkness reset the mood, and pianist Francies chimed in with an otherworldly bolt from the blue that energized the band.

“There is this heavenly keyboard sound that comes out of nowhere,” Harris recalled. “He’s not playing the song, he’s playing a chord. I completely improvised an intro, and we followed each other in the moment. It all unfolded in the most organic way that was all about empathy and a connection between a group of human beings who genuinely care about one another.”

The empathy is sustained—even heightened—as “Throw It Away” segues seamlessly into Hutcherson’s “Now.” Harris, who shared good times onstage and backstage with the elder vibraphonist, said the decision to include the piece—the title tune from a 1970 Hutcherson album—reflected a desire to acknowledge their special relationship.

“He was the most generous, kind human being to me,” Harris said. “I have a love for Bobby Hutcherson that absolutely is expressed in the way we play that piece of music.”

Drawing on the work of arranger Omar Thomas and orchestrator Scott Arcangel, the charts for the piece were the most complex on the album—it is the only one to incorporate both strings and winds—even before singer Baylor upped the ante with an in-studio request.

“When we got to the hook,” Harris recalled, “Jean said to me, ‘Do you mind if I try something?’ This is late in the session. We’re running out of money and we’re still going. But I said, ‘Absolutely. This piece of music is about that nurturing spirit. Here’s a microphone—just sit and listen and react.’”

Harris cleared the studio, save for Gully and engineer Joe Marciano, and, on the spot, Baylor overdubbed 16 versions of her voice, to which Harris added Benjamin’s vocoder, Mike Moreno’s guitar, Regina Carter’s violin, Daniel Frankhuizen’s cello, Felix Peikli’s clarinet and Elena Pinderhughes’ flute. The result is an uplifting swirl of sound that captures Hutcherson’s soul without imitating his style.

“What you hear is a reflection of a broader community perspective than I can deliver on my own,” Harris said.

Harris’ respect for consensus is thorough, but not absolute. Carter, an old friend, noted that he knows when to reject others’ ideas—as he did when she asked for a do-over. As it turned out, she said, he was right: Whatever might have been gained technically would have been outweighed by a loss in spontaneous feeling.

“Part of his brilliance in music is in getting people to get in touch with their emotion,” Carter said.

Emotion, pure and simple, is the essential ingredient on the album’s closing track, “Gone Too Soon.” Harris and Joseph Doubleday (on marimba) perform the Larry Grossman/Buz Kohan tune as a sweet-and-simple tribute to singer Michael Jackson. The pop superstar himself recorded “Gone Too Soon” on his 1991 album, Dangerous, in honor of AIDS victim Ryan White (1971–’90).

“Here’s a guy who clearly faced lots of racism and somehow had the audacity and fortitude to lead with love throughout his life,” Harris said of Jackson. “That is not an easy thing to do, and quite honestly I struggle with that myself. It’s difficult to look at what we’re facing politically and socially in this country and maintain that compassion and love.

“I love that piece of music because it’s enough of an artistic challenge just to deliver the melody in a way that’s emotional and authentic. A piece like that is indicative of where I’m going as an artist. I really want to simply learn to organize sound and silence into emotion.”

For all his interest in conveying emotion in a simple fashion, Harris remains fully engaged in the complexities of the academic life. “There’s really no divide between the academic and the spiritual at all,” he said. “When you think about someone like John Coltrane—as spiritual a musician as we understand him to be—he was equally brilliant intellectually, and so was Louis Armstrong and all the icons who have come before.

Page 2 of 3   < 1 2 3 > 


  • Herb_Alpert_-_Press_Photo_01_%28credit_Dewey_Nicks%29_copy.jpg

    “I like to just click on songs that touched me and see if I could do them in a personal way — especially if it’s a well-known song,” Alpert said about selecting material for his new album.

  • Les_McCann_by_C_Andrew_Hovan_copy.jpg

    McCann’s deep roots in gospel and the blues gave his music a gritty, earthy quality and a large supply of soulful licks.

  • 1_Black_Men_of_Labor_Second_Line_Parade_copy.jpg

    The Black Men of Labor Club leads a second line parade, from the documentary City of a Million Dreams.

  • image002_copy.jpg

    ​The Blue Note Quintet includes Gerald Clayton, Immanuel Wilkins, Joel Ross, Kendrick Scott and Matt Brewer. The all-star collective embarks on a North American tour this month.

  • 24_Emmet_Cohen_GABRIELAGABRIELAA_copy_2.JPG

    Emmet Cohen, right, with one of his heroes, Houston Person.