Stefon Harris’ youthful goal was to play lead tympani in the New York Philharmonic; instead, he took up the vibraphone and became one of the most ambitious jazz players of his generation. Previously, Harris’ classical background has combined with his jazz chops in large-scale concert works and song-length pieces for mainstream quartet. However, his current ensemble, Blackout, focuses instead on filtering jazz through the propulsive beats of funk, soul, hip-hop, and—on its 2009 CD Urbanus—D.C.’s indigenous genre, go-go (via an arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Gone”). In anticipation of Blackout’s performance at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, Nov.14, Harris waxed philosophical to The A.V. Club about breaking down musical barriers, melody versus rhythm, and why creativity is overrated.
The A.V. Club: How did your work in classical-infused jazz take the turn into the funk and hip-hop we hear on Urbanus?
Stefon Harris: Well, it’s definitely a part of my cultural background. I grew in the inner city, listening to Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, James Brown, The Commodores—lots of soul music. And my mother’s actually a Pentecostal minister, so I also heard a lot of gospel music. And I’m of that age when rap first started, so I remember Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool J. It was a very organic progression to the music on this album.
AVC: And did all of the band members bring something to the table as well?
SH: Absolutely. One of the things I’m adamant about as a bandleader is not micromanaging. I’m an advocate for the concept of allowing everyone to be fully vested in what they’re doing, so everyone contributes whatever they’re inspired to contribute. Our music is not about me; I contribute one part, one experience, and [drummer] Terreon Gully brings something completely different.
AVC: You were raised in Albany, New York; how is it that you’re now experimenting with a musical style like go-go, which is so distinctive to D.C.?
SH: That’s a great collaboration with the ensemble. I’d heard Porgy And Bess, Miles Davis’ record, many, many times—I’ve worn that CD out. As soon as I heard the piece “Gone,” I knew that it was something I wanted to record. And there’s something about that rhythm, it has such a beautiful flow to it, that it made perfect sense for me to bring it in to the Blackout ensemble. I did the arranging, but once I brought it in it was a matter of not talking too much, just starting to play and letting the guys experiment with it. As it happens, my dad lived in Northern Virginia, so I spent some summers there, and two of the members of the ensemble—the pianist, Marc Cary, and the bassist, Ben Williams—are from D.C. So I suggested we try a go-go rhythm, and you could see Marc and Ben come to life! [Laughs.] That was all we needed.
AVC: Urbanus has a harder edge to it than Evolution, the previous Blackout album. Is that deliberate?
SH: I would say that all of our progressions are not deliberate. [Laughs.] After we made Evolution, we went on the road, and over the years a different sound developed. It’s definitely not something we sat around and talked about: “Okay, we’re gonna create a record that has a harder edge.” I’m not even sure I’d say it’s “harder-edged,” so much as that there are fewer barriers. We chose the name Blackout because we liked the idea of blacking out the narrow definition of what jazz is supposed to be. So as we’ve evolved as an ensemble, I think you’re just hearing that we’re allowing more hip-hop rhythms, more go-go, more R&B, while maintaining the beautiful integrity of swing. We’re just opening up to allow all the possibilities in.
AVC: As a vibraphonist, you’re generally a melodic player; does the nature of Blackout make you play more rhythmically?
SH: I think it all comes back to the individual. My instrument’s just a pile of metal and wood! If you listen to the way I speak I have a lot of rhythm, use a lot of accents. When I’m playing my instrument that concept comes through very clearly. In fact some people who’ve seen me play have noticed that I’m singing—but it’s more that I’m actually speaking. So it’s not really about the instrument. But for me, in my thinking, the music is all about the melody. When I compose, 99 percent of the time I start with the melody.
AVC: But isn’t the rhythmic emphasis what distinguishes Blackout from your other projects?
SH: Right. I think when you look back at the different eras in jazz, what leads from one to another is never a melodic revolution, but a rhythmic revolution. So absolutely I think that the rhythm is important here. And my job is to be a part of that, but also to be the warm current on top of that. You know, if I were to bang out just the rhythm of “The Star Spangled Banner,” nobody would know what song it was. But if I play the melody, even if I play it in an abstract manner, it’s instantly recognizable. Even when I was studying to be a classical percussionist, I think I was a more lyrical percussionist; melody is the heart and soul of the music.
AVC: How did you move from those classical studies into jazz?
SH: I don’t really see huge barriers between any styles of music. My definition of music is “organizing sound and silence into emotion,” and that’s a very broad definition. When you see us live, you’ll realize that we don’t really have a genre. We play jazz, we play reggae, we play gospel, we play soul music. We have avant-garde and classical influences. It’s just organizing sound into emotion. But people can call it jazz if they want—as long as they call it, I don’t mind! [Laughs.] As for how I describe it, I find the term “jazz” to be a bit broad, so I like to be more specific and call it “jazz-urban.”
AVC: Do you think that description, “jazz-urban,” is more relevant to audiences today?
SH: Oh, absolutely. I think we’re hitting our mark as far as making sure that our music is a reflection of our time, that it’s not just a re-creation of music from the past. It’s not a compromise at all: The way I look at music, what I’m interested in is not necessarily creativity—in many ways I think creativity is overrated, actually. What I think is important is authenticity. I want to hear music that has the resonance of the people. I want to hear music that is an amplification of them. Because then, I can experience the people. But because the music has become so institutionalized, everyone is learning and regurgitating the same material in the same way. I was doing a master class in Tennessee a few years ago and they were all playing Ellington’s “Cotton Tail.” The tune is from Harlem, and I’m in the middle of Tennessee. Doesn’t anyone have a Tennessee sound? There’s no country-jazz?