“Jazz is just what you are,” said Louis Armstrong.
When 36-year-old Stefon Harris hears this quote, he starts to laugh. “I could not agree more,” he says on the phone from San Francisco. “How beautifully, simply said, huh?”
Urbanus (Concord), his second release with his group Blackout—Casey Benjamin (alto sax, vocoder), Marc Cary (piano, keyboards, Fender Rhodes), Ben Williams (bass) and Terreon Gully (drums)—
“This is the music of my generation. It’s influenced by the music of Stevie Wonder and go-go and the types of music that I and the members of the ensemble grew up with,” he says. “The Generation X wave—I think our voices have been a little muted. It’s a little surprising when you have a few of us stepping out and saying, Jazz is our music. We love it for what it represents in terms of being a great platform for our expression.”
Harris and Blackout will be expressing their love at the Outpost on Thursday, with a fresh, infectious and completely unselfconscious sound that injects new life into an old genre.
Harris’ professional career began on the classical side, sparked by the television performance of a symphony orchestra on Christmas Eve when he was in sixth grade. I want to be in that band, he remembers thinking. He auditioned for the orchestra on clarinet and percussion and was accepted as a percussionist.
He earned a BA in classical music and an MA in jazz performance, and his interests still stretch across genres. In fact, he was in San Francisco performing his piece A Sonic Painting in Wood, Metal and Wind with Imani Winds, the classical woodwind quartet that had commissioned the composition.
The opening track on Urbanus, “Gone,” illustrates the confluence of influences that shape Blackout. The tune is based on a Gil Evans arrangement of Gershwin’s “Gone, Gone, Gone” from Porgy and Bess. But the feel is all go-go, a funky dance genre that originated in D.C., the home turf of Cary and Williams, and Harris’ arrangement rounds out the sound with additional woodwinds and percussion. The result sounds like nothing else. The group has opened a window and let some fresh air in.
The disc’s selections include classic and contemporary jazz compositions—from Buster Williams, Jackie McLean and Tim Warfield—to a reworking of Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go” and several originals from band members, ranging from funky (Gully’s “Tanktified”) to ethereal (Harris’ “Langston’s Lullaby,” written for his son).
For Harris, all of it represents the authentic experience, musical and otherwise, of the band members. “That’s the thing about art,” he says. “You really cannot tell a lie, because when you do tell a lie, it’s quite apparent to the audience in your sound. They can hear the difference. So the best music that we’re going to make is the music that is a reflection of our generation, of our times. It’s inevitable.”
For Harris, his work as an improviser “really is a process of discovery, not creativity,” he says.
The same dynamic applies to the group as a whole. “We’ve been playing together for quite a few years now, and on the bandstand, we’re very spontaneous,” Harris says. “There’s this incredible chemistry that’s developed. So a lot of the arrangements are things that happened spontaneously on the bandstand, so that everyone is really contributing to what is going on.
“A lot of these things are not my decision. It’s really about hiring musicians that I love, trust and respect. ... You take five unique human beings and bring them together under a common vision, and something so much bigger than any one of us is the outcome.”