Black Action Figure

I'm not a big fan of the vibes," says 27-year-old vibraphonist Stefon Harris. "I like the vibes. They're cool and all, but it's not really the instrument that I'm interested in. It's always the music. If I weren't playing the vibes, I'd be playing something else."

Harris is nothing if not an unlikely jazzman. He studied classical percussion and marimba in high school and set his sights on a career with the New York Philharmonic. It wasn't until college that he took up both jazz and the vibraphone.

From there, however, it didn't take him long to make his mark: While still in college the neophyte was signed by the prestigious Blue Note label. When Harris popped out of the box in 1998 with A Cloud of Red Dust, the young gun offered up one of the most fully realized debuts in recent memory. Instead of blowing through a bunch of standards, Harris wrote all the compositions himself save one. He tapped into the "vibes" of masters like Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson and Johnny Lytle, along with those of composers Wayne Shorter and Igor Stravinsky. Harris shuffled styles, moods and themes frequently, and utilized shorter interludes between some songs to smooth out the shifts. As a result, Red Dust feels like a single long-form composition with several distinct movements.

"Improvisation was probably at the bottom of the list of importance for me at that point," Harris says. "I was much more interested in writing and putting together a record that had continuity and concept. Something that really flowed from beginning to end….So I was much more focused on the writing."

A flurry of media attention followed the release of Red Dust, and Harris chalked up a few Best New Talent awards. By the time his second album, 1999's Black Action Figure, was released, Harris was a hot commodity. Action Figure followed a different path, as Harris turned his attention to improvisation. As a result, the solos are better developed and have clearer lines of thought. Harris hits the groove more often and shows more consistency. On "Black Action Figure I stepped out a lot more in terms of improvising," Harris says. "I had been working on and developing a style, and I felt that at that point, 'Okay, I feel more confident about highlighting my improvisation.' "

As an improviser, Harris is as unpredictable as his compositions. "Stefon has embraced everything," says drummer Eric Harland, an HSPVA grad who appeared on Action Figure. "He took everything from his past, and instead of weeding out different things and then coming up with something of his own, he embraced everything and let it all just speak for itself. Like he will go into this dimension over here and then he will come up just straight swinging 4/4 here or he will go free on you. I mean you can never tell what you are going to get with Stefon. It is always just open."

For Harris, writing and improvising are not so much about creation as they are about discovery. If the music goes one way on a particular night, so be it. If it goes another way, that's cool, too. He doesn't have a preplanned set list; he prefers to call tunes based on the mood of the room. Harris adds that there's something else that directs his live performance: He listens, not only to his bandmates but also to the audience.

"These days I'm very much focused on communication between the musicians," he says. "I always want that sense of discovery to be happening amongst all of us. So it's not just about grandstanding and what I can do when I'm soloing. I can move my hands really quickly. It's much more interesting to see the decisions that are made between all of us. Like someone introduces an idea and I respond to it, and in my response someone else hears that and adds on to it. And someone else says, 'Hey, that sounds great, I don't need to play right now.' Starting with these small pieces and letting them develop and unfold into a thing of beauty. There's no one leader; it's very much a community at work."

As one of the more adventurous young players on the scene, Harris is much in demand. He has a duet album with pianist Jacky Terrasson coming out later this year. He's also stumbled across an increasingly popular vehicle to get new works heard: the corporate grant. Harris recently was commissioned by the Troy Savings Bank in Troy, New York (near his hometown of Albany), to premiere a piece for its concert series. He wrote a 45-minute work that incorporates two trombones, tenor sax, clarinet, flügelhorn, alto flute and classical percussion. Titled The Grand Unification Theory, the composition will be recorded for Blue Note and released next year.

"I could have written a solo marimba piece that was 15 minutes long," Harris says. "But I chose to challenge myself and to grow, and so I wrote an entire concert of music instead of just a 15-minute piece. The thing that [sponsorship] does is it helps encourage creativity, which the record industry doesn't always do….That seems to be the direction that jazz is moving: these performing arts centers. It's very difficult for clubs to afford to have headliner musicians come to their place. Financially, it's difficult to pay those fees and make the money that they need to make, whereas a lot of these performing arts centers have more money. They have more funding coming from a variety of sources, and I think that's fine, for me."

Exploration and discovery underpin Harris's music, but there's another, equally important concept that's threaded throughout his work. It's an inspirational quality, one that's easy to sing about but hard to get across musically. "I think his concept is love," says former Houston pianist Jason Moran, who appeared on Harris's first two albums. "He really wants to express that through every note that he plays, which is rare. Some people want to display hatred. He is constantly working on his thing … and I know he will be one of the true stars of the music."

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Paul J. MacArthur