Stefon Harris’ Diverse Ambitions


In addition to assembling a new band, Stefon Harris has developed an app called Harmony Cloud, which helps users play by ear.

(Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

Even though Stefon Harris hasn’t released an album since 2011’s Ninety Miles (Concord), on which he shared top billing with Christian Scott and David Sánchez, the 43-year-old vibraphonist and composer has been extremely busy with a variety of projects. He certainly showed no signs of artistic rust when he performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., April 9.

Navigating effortlessly between vibraphone and marimba, Harris fronted his new ensemble, Sonic Creed, which includes pianist James Francies, drummer Kendrick Scott, bassist Joshua Crumbly and flutist Elena Pinderhughes.

Sonic Creed riveted the packed house with an exploratory, tightly focused set that placed high stakes on rhythmic agility, communicative alertness and spontaneous invention, starting off with a blistering reading of Horace Silver’s “The Cape Verdean Blues.” Each member admirably held their own next to Harris, whose virtuosic and imaginative improvisations can certainly prove unnerving for lesser talents.

Pinderhughes was particularly impressive, retaining her sinewy tone and assured passages in front of Scott’s blistering and extended drum solo on “Bye Bye Blackbird,” a tune on which Harris set the tone with a capricious, intrepid unaccompanied solo.

Following the gorgeous ballad “Let’s Take A Trip To The Sky,” Harris gave the floor to Crumbly, who thumped an impromptu four-note ostinato that eventually became the groundwork for the ensemble’s unexpected rendezvous with Juan Tizol’s “Caravan.”

Francies—who just signed a contract with Blue Note Records—shined brightly with a mesmerizing solo on “I Fall In Love Too Easily.”

Harris appeared to be having great fun throughout the concert, especially when he engaged in cat-and-mouse rhythmic and melodic repartee with his bandmates. Earlier that week, he had performed “Crystal Silence” with Chick Corea at the Kennedy Center in honor of Gary Burton at the 2016 NEA Jazz Masters concert.

In between those days, Harris gave master classes at various schools in Washington, D.C. He spoke with DownBeat about the importance of education in his life and why he’s not stressed out about recording a new album.

DownBeat: How did the new ensemble, Sonic Creed, emerge?

Conceptually, I wanted to surround myself with younger musicians to create a different type of energy. I’m someone who needs to constantly evolve. One of the ways to do that is to change the people who are around you so that things remain unpredictable. So I was looking for a group of young, talented musicians to push me.

What are the some of the benefits of having an intergenerational band such as Sonic Creed?

Having the experience of playing lots of concerts and tours, you learn more about how to connect with an audience. Studying music in isolation doesn’t get you there. You really need to be on stage in front of people. There’s also this interesting checks-and-balances system associated with creativity. Sometimes younger musicians let the creativity overwhelm the actual process of making music. We talk a lot about the process of taking our creativity and [expressing] it in a way that’s effective in terms of delivering our message. Ultimately, it’s about delivering the song—creatively.

Those are some of the things that I learned from playing with Joe Henderson [1937–2001], who was an immensely creative human being. But he always delivered a beautiful melody that was pure and soulful. He used the melody within the song itself as a starting point to express his creativity.

Talk about your evolution of becoming a mentor and how that experience influences your current music.

Sonic Creed has some of the most gifted musicians in the world. So when I think about mentoring, it’s not only about making music. There are a lot of things that I’m learning from them as well. I’ve found in the past 15 years that one of my true passions is education. I get up in the middle of the night thinking about ideas of how to solve problems. Education is really a deep-seated passion of mine.

One of the other things that I’ve been doing with my time during the past three years is starting an app-developing company called the Melodic Progression Institute. Our first product is called the Harmony Cloud, which we just released a few weeks ago. You can find it on the Apple’s app store. It’s an app that teaches musicians to play by ear. I’ve been completely consumed in the past few years.

Your last bona fide solo disc, Urbanus, came out in 2009. Are you in the process of recording or is that something that no longer concerns you?

I’m pretty sure that we’re going to hit the studio within the next year. I have to look at myself not as a musician. I have all of these notebooks around my studio, where I’m always writing down thoughts. Probably 10 years ago, I wrote something that changed my life: “I am not a musician. I happened to have a gift, which manifests well into music.” That was so pivotal for me, because I gave myself permission to dream off of the bandstand and to be completely fulfilled, knowing that I’m still manifesting my talent and gift.

So the idea of teaching, developing apps, mentoring, and culturally contextualizing my ambition on the planet are very important to me. I feel that’s a manifestation of my artistry. So that’s going to come out in CDs but also through my teaching, the apps and the corporate presentations that I’ve been doing in the past three years.

I give corporate leadership talks about team dynamics. I bring a jazz ensemble with me. I can demonstrate musically the pitfalls of micromanagement. You can hear it manifest in sound. I can also demonstrate how to empower the people around you as a bandleader. It’s about organizing the ideas around you without dictating exactly what you want them to do. Then you become the beneficiary of everyone’s greatness.

As an artist, I’ve been working really hard and growing tremendously. I can honestly tell you that I feel like I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing right now.

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