Stefon Harris + Blackout celebrate their tenth-year reunion with this third offering that, perhaps, is their most significant. Sonic Creed is an unapologetic documentation of the love that the group has for each other. According to Harris, Sonic Creed is intended to “amplify the voices of [our] communities and gives a voice to marginalized people and their stories…a sonic manifestation and creed of family, community and legacy. I believe that our music should be about something other than organizing sounds and silence. This is about celebrating our elders in a way they would be proud and that we’re doing it our own way.”
Sonic Creed is an homage to Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Bobby Hutcherson, Wayne Shorter, Abbey Lincoln and Michael Jackson. Harris penned two originals, “Chasin’ Kendall” (his two sons middle names) based on a soulful, repeated, bass line that functions as a melody, harkens memories of music played at backyard BBQ’s of his youth; “Let’s Take a Trip to The Sky” (a tribute to his wife and love) a hauntingly, beautiful ballad song by Jean Baylor. On Terreon Gully’s suggestion, Harris included “Song of Samson” written by Lasean Keith Brown whose father, Donald Brown, is an alumna of Art Blakey Messengers.
Each tune is personal. The opener, “Dat Dare” (B. Timmons) is most associated with Art Blakey who is a forefather of jazz education, albeit, from the bandstand. Upon his death in 1990 the jazz community declared, “School’s Out.” Jazz in an improvising art form based on empathy. One must listen and hear what is going on around them and respond to it. The band’s camaraderie, trust and love are demonstrated in Abbey Lincoln’s tune “Throw it Away”. Harris recalls, “[I} had an arrangement that I was trying at the end of the day, we were tired. Terreon said ‘turn off the lights, let’s see what happens.’ The keyboard sound started (James was improvising chord progressions). We were playing by ear, didn’t know who was going to start…it just flowed, it was organic, the connections we had as brothers allowed us to listen to each other and be obedient to the music. The last note, we stopped on a dime.”
Blessed to count vibraphonist, Bobby Hutcherson as a friend and mentor, one of his charges to Harris was “never forget that it’s about family first”. Hutcherson’s composition “Now” reflects his acknowledgement of that special relationship.
The album’s closing track “Gone Too Soon” featuring Harris and Joseph Doubleday (on marimba) is a tribute to Michael Jackson that highlights his impact on Harris, specifically and Black culture as a whole. Says Harris, “upon his death it seemed as if people didn’t understand how significant his legacies were.” Harris always had respect for Jackson as “[against obstacle’s] he had an ambition to dedicate his love to Black people” He continues, “love is a pathway forward. Jazz is a sonic manifestation of Black culture…there’s no separation between Earth, Wind & Fire or John Coltrane.”
In addition to being a vibraphonist, bandleader, composer and arranger Harris is also associate dean and director of jazz arts at the Manhattan School of Music. For two straight years he has won first place in the DownBeat Critics Poll. A virtuoso, Harris is a thoughtful and introspective man who seeks to leave a positive imprint on this planet. He’s quoted as saying, “When I think about the end of my time on this planet, I want to be able to look back and say I did something I could be proud of”.
Intent on documenting the “here and now”, Sonic Creed is a musical reflection of African-American life in the 20th and 21st centuries. Stefon strives to make people feel alive. “People are numb now. My job is to bring people to the brink where they feel alive, angry, sad. The music speaks for itself.”
Music is about feelings. A way for people to feel connected. As Wynton Marsalis’ Black Codes (From The Underground) shepherded in a new jazz era in the ‘80’s, so too, Sonic Creed will prove to be a true jazz classic.
Stefon Harris - Vibraphone, marimba
Casey Benjamin - Alto and soprano saxophones, vocoder
Felix Peikli - Clarinet, bass clarinet
James Francies - Piano, keyboards
Mike Moreno - Guitar
Jean Baylor - Vocals
Regina Carter - Violin
Daniel Frankhuizen - Cello
Elena Pinderhughes - Flute
Joseph Doubleday - Marimba
Joshua Crumbly - Bass
Terreon Gully - Drums
Pedrito Martinez - Percussion.
Sheila Anderson is a writer and an announcer at WGBO New York