Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Stefon Harris & Blackout - Sonic Creed

Vibraphonist, composer, educator, and bandleader Stefon Harris and Motema Music are proud to present the long-awaited new album from Stefon Harris & Blackout, Sonic Creed, available September 28, 2018. The album is Harris and Blackout's first recording since Urbanus (which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2009), and 2004's Evolution. The conception and birth of Sonic Creed came about as a result of Harris bursting with this music, this sound, and this album, inside of him. "What pushes me to release a new album is the answer to the question; if I don't record this music will the sound of this music exist in the world? And if the answer is no, then we have to go into the studio!", says Harris.

Sonic Creed is about music that chronicles the story of a people and their time on earth. It is a reflection of African American life in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Furthermore, it is a sonic manifestation and creed of family, community and legacy. Harris explains that, "these core assets of the Black community are the messages of Sonic Creed, and we honor our legacy by exploring the music of masters such as Bobby Hutcherson, Abbey Lincoln, Wayne Shorter and Horace Silver. Their music is timeless and is the literal aural expression of those community assets". The album therefore serves as a representation, through Harris and Blackout's existence and experience, of Black American life in the present. "I want to document our time on the planet in the here and NOW! What is the sound of 'Black Lives Matter' for example? What is the sound of electing the first African American President of The United States? What is the sound of right now? This is what Blackout represents. It's art for our sake", states Harris. called Stefon Harris & Blackout, a "scintillating ensemble that's as versed in modern jazz as it is with rhythms, melodies and soundscapes associated with R&B, pop, hip-hop and funk." Will Layman stated in Pop Matters that when Stefon Harris "burst on the scene in 1998 with A Cloud of Red Dust on Blue Note, he seemed suddenly and gloriously too good to be true. Here was a classically trained percussionist playing hot and smart on the jazz instrument that seems perpetually to have the fewest contenders. Harris splashed into view as the logical successor to Bobby Hutcherson - bold and thrilling, inside the tradition but surging outward." And, John Murph recently reported in DownBeat Magazine that, "Sonic Creed riveted the packed house [at The Kennedy Center] 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."

Sonic Creed more than lives up to the abundance of praise that has been raining down on Harris for years, opening with a funkified version of "Dat Dere". "Every Blackout record starts with a classic tune which we put a Blackout stamp on. Art Blakey was an educator, a mentor of the highest order and a pioneer in jazz education, and this is something that resonates very deeply within me. This pays tribute to a master of our music", says Harris.

"Chasin' Kendall" was written for Harris' two sons, and is a remembrance and reflection of family get-togethers that Harris experienced growing up, where the soundtrack was always the likes of Donny Hathaway, The Temptations and Marvin Gaye. The song is built on a bass line that Harris "found" on the piano, which is reminiscent of that time, and the music of that time. It also makes Harris smile!

Next up is "Let's Take A Trip To The Sky", written for his wife while Harris was on the road during their 10th wedding anniversary. The lyrics, sung by Jean Baylor, are Harris' reflections on their love, and on allowing love to perpetually grow and evolve.

Horace Silver's "The Cape Verdean Blues" gets the Blackout treatment/stamp, adhering to the "sonic creed" of, "paying tribute to our ancestors and masters the way they would want it done - in a way that expresses our time on the planet", proclaims Harris.

Harris and Blackout tackle Wayne Shorter's "Go" (from Shorter's Schizophrenia) with deep respect and love for the master saxophonist/composer. Harris explains, "Wayne could say two sentences to you that could completely change your life, and he did that to me several times. Ultimately the lesson he imparted on me, the takeaway, was to hold steadfast to the 'sonic creed' of authentic expression, to always represent our lives and times honestly and with courage.

"Song Of Samson", written by Lasean Keith Brown, son of pianist Donald Brown Jr., expresses another "sonic creed" of Blackout, which is to record originals from other living artists, recognizing that it's equally important to play music composed by your peers as it to record music from the masters. This tune is an example of the African American experience interacting with Afro-Caribbean culture, and a representation of Blackout's holistic view of the African diaspora.

Stefon Harris beams when the conversation turns to the late, great Abbey Lincoln. "She was so intelligent and courageous, and just so beautiful. She sang in a way that made you feel as if she was just telling you a story. I learned to phrase from vocalists, especially Abbey!" Harris came in with an arrangement of "Throw It Away", but drummer/co-producer Terreon Gully suggested a different approach. He instructed the crew at Systems Two to turn off all the lights in the studio and let the band know when they were rolling. It was pitch black, the band summoned Lincoln's spirit, listened intently, and relying on their kinship and trust, launched into the music. The first take is what you hear on the album.

Arguably, the only tune that could logically follow the emotional momentousness of Blackout's version of "Throw It Away", is Bobby Hutcherson's "Now", with vocals arranged and sung by 2018 Grammy nominee, Jean Baylor. The beauty of this composition cannot be overstated, and the band expresses their reverence for the late vibraphone master with aplomb. "Hutch was such a beautiful human being, and a genius, harmonically, and technically, of course. He had an insatiable curiosity, and it was a privilege to witness him evolving and growing throughout his life. He would always tell me, 'family first', and I took that to heart", says Harris. These days Harris absolutely loves melodies and derives so much joy from telling a story. "Now" has a simple, but beautiful, repeating melody that's like a chant. Baylor wanted to try something on the spot in the studio and Harris, having the wisdom of a good leader, allowed her all the time she needed. "Jean is just amazing, and when she said she's hearing something and wanted to try it out, I instantly agreed because I trust her instincts. She created layer after layer of vocals, in the moment - and we just had to step aside so she could let this beauty out of her soul."

Sonic Creed closes with a tribute to Michael Jackson, "Gone Too Soon". Harris, like many others, was hurt when Michael Jackson passed away. "His music was a perfect example of Black American life - he wasn't just a pop icon, but also a cultural and artistic icon, and very much part of the narrative of my people", says Harris. "His contributions were significant to say the least, and it pained me to see how people characterized him, sometimes in a derogatory way, so I wanted to pay tribute to him here." "Gone Too Soon" also provided Harris with an opportunity to shine a light on another musician coming up behind him. In this case, Harris performs a duet with vibraphonist Joseph Doubleday (the first ever vibraphonist accepted to the Jazz Studies program at Juilliard, and a coveted sideman with Chris Potter's Underground Orchestra, The Kenny Barron Quintet, The Ralph Peterson Fo'tet, and many others).

Stefon Harris' passionate artistry and astonishing virtuosity have propelled him to the forefront of the jazz scene. Heralded as "one of the most important artists in jazz" (The Los Angeles Times), he is a recipient of the prestigious Martin E. Segal Award from Lincoln Center, has earned four GRAMMY™ nominations, and has been named Best Mallet player eight times by the Jazz Journalists Association. He was also chosen Best Vibes in the 2018 and 2017 DownBeat Magazine Critic's Poll, the 2016 JazzTimes Expanded Critics Poll, the 2014 JazzTimes Critics Poll and the 2013 DownBeat Magazine Critics Poll.

NPR's All Things Considered praised Mr. Harris' audacious CD Urbanus, which also earned a GRAMMY™ nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album, as one of "The Year's Best New Jazz" recordings. As a member of the SFJAZZ Collective, Harris was featured on their 2014 recording, Wonder: The Songs of Stevie Wonder, which won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Album.

Stefon Harris received his Bachelor of Music degree in classical music and Master of Music degree in jazz performance at Manhattan School of Music (MSM). He teaches in person at universities throughout the world and virtually via his Distance Learning Studio, has led curriculum development at the Brubeck Institute, and serves as Jazz Advisor for Jazz Education at New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Prior to being named Associate Dean and Director of Jazz Arts at MSM in July 2017, Mr. Harris was Visiting Professor at Rutgers University and served on the jazz faculty of New York University for the past decade. "The Art of Listening," part of a series of documentaries focusing on Harris' community work in arts education in Kalamazoo, won 3 Gold Camera awards and 3 Michigan EMMY nominations.

As a thought leader, Mr. Harris leads transformative presentations on corporate leadership development and team empowerment to Fortune 50 companies using jazz as a metaphor. His inspiring 2012 TED talk, "There Are No Mistakes on the Bandstand," has gained nearly three-quarter of a million views to date. Mr. Harris has served on the Board of Directors for Chamber Music America and WBGO-FM and is currently on the Board of Advisors for the Percussive Arts Society.

In addition to Sonic Creed (on Motema Music), Harris has recorded as part of The Classical Jazz Quartet, with Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Lewis Nash, as a member of the SFJAZZ Collective, as well as recording and performing with many of music's greatest artists, including Joe Henderson, Wynton Marsalis, Milt Jackson, Lionel Hampton, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, Dr. Billy Taylor, Max Roach (MSM alumnus), Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller, Benny Golson, Bobby Watson, Chaka Khan, Kurt Elling, Buster Williams, Dianne Reeves, Ry Cooder, Charlie Hunter, Common, and Pablo Zeigler.

His venture into new technological advances led to the co-founding of The Melodic Progression Institute (MPI) in 2013 with partner Clif Swiggett. With a focus on designing innovative ways to help musicians learn and grown, MPI released its first app in 2016, Harmony Cloud™, an ear-training learning tool now available on iTunes.

We are thrilled to announce that educator, musician and entrepreneur Stefon Harris has been named a recipient of the 2018 Doris Duke Artist Awards. One of the most prestigious programs in the arts, "the Doris Duke Artist Awards invest in exemplary individual artists in contemporary dance, jazz, theater and related interdisciplinary work who have demonstrated their artistic vitality and commitment to their field." Harris joins 6 artists from various disciplines including Dee Dee Bridgewater, Regina Carter, Michelle Dorrance, (dance), Murial Miguel (theater), Okwui Okpokwasili (dance), Rosalba Rolan (theater). More information at Harris has also just won the 66th Annual DownBeat Critics Poll in the vibraphone category. 


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