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Ringing true

Stefon Harris searches on the vibes and beyond


You might have to go back as far as John Coltrane's Stellar Regions (1967) to find an album with as vast a concept as Stefon Harris' TheGrand Unification Theory. Then again, Harris is not what you'd call a one-dimensional musician.

Having placed second to vibes legend Bobby Hutcherson (and first in the Rising Star category) in the 2004 DownBeat International Critics Poll, Harris, at the age of 31, is the heir-apparent to the vibes throne. But his interests reach far beyond.

The Grand Unification Theory, a tour-de-force album with arrangements for 12 musicians, is based on his readings in quantum physics: the idea that the connection between gravitational force, molecular energy, and electromagnetic energy could provide the solution to the mystery of creation.

Not exactly Stefon Harris Plays Jazz Standards. But why not base an album on science? After all, musical notes have been detected by astrophysicists in the far reaches of the universe. Music must be part of that equation.

"I think music is something that's bigger than we are," Harris says. "I don't think we created it; I just think that we recognize it. The reason I study music and practice to develop my ears is so I can hear more clearly that which already exists. I look at it in a very broad sense. I don't know who created it and that's irrelevant to me. All I know is that when my ears are really finely tuned, I can hear the right note. And the only reason I know it's the right note is because it already exists."

Harris makes a rare Rochester appearance this weekend, when he'll premiere 11 new arrangements at the 35th Annual Penfield Jazz Fund Raiser with a variety of student ensembles.

When Harris was a student growing up in Albany, the first music he fell for was r&b: Stevie Wonder, The Commodores, Diana Ross, James Brown. And he was his own first teacher.

"My brother and sister could play piano a little bit and they would never teach me. I'm the baby of the bunch and they would always pick on me, so I said I'm going to learn how to do this on my own," he says. "My family moved into an apartment where somebody left an old piano and a bunch of books. It's pretty simple. There's a picture of a keyboard and an arrow pointing to a key and it says 'this is C.' So I figured that must be C."

C indeed. By his teenage years Harris was playing clarinet, flute, trombone, piano, and drums. An inspiring teacher drew him to the vibes, but, Harris says, "I'm not really wed to any instrument, I just love music. If it weren't vibes I'd be playing something else."

That said, Harris is a virtuoso vibraphonist. But one hearing of The Grand Unification Theory or his latest album, Evolution, tells you his music is not about the instrument. In fact, he says, "there are quite a few times when I didn't want to be on it at all but you get pressure from the record company that you need to be on the track."

His influences are the usual suspects.

"I can remember at Eastman [School of Music --- he attended for one year, 1991-1992] being introduced to a lot of jazz," he says. "I got a record called Things are Getting Better by Milt Jackson and Cannonball Adderley. I transcribed almost every note Milt Jackson played on that record. He is definitely a major influence."

Harris, who went on to earn a degree in classical percussion at the Manhattan School of Music, is also inspired by Hutcherson and Lionel Hampton. "Hampton's rhythm is phenomenal; it's really complex to try to play some of his solos and imitate the feel."

Not surprisingly, his influences go beyond jazz to Igor Stravinsky and, in what he describes as his current "elegant phase," Beethoven and Bach.

Then there are those other areas of interest.

"It's an amazing world we live in and there are a lot of things that fascinate me," Harris says. "I have a lot of goals outside of music that I would like to accomplish in my lifetime. My ultimate pursuit is that of happiness. Music brings me great happiness right now, but if there were ever a period of time when music didn't do that, I wouldn't play. And I don't think I would miss it. It's something that's incredible and I'm getting a lot out of it, but there are other things that I think are incredible that I could get a lot out of."

Like languages. He's recently been studying Spanish.

While playing can be a workout for any musician, the vibes demand an unusual level of energy.

"The music is very physical, it's like dance," he says. "I find that if I can get to a complete state of relaxation through my entire body, I play very well. When I play a certain type of gesture, if I can visualize it and then move in a way that articulates that gesture, it's going to help the notes be more articulate. If I sat still and only moved my wrists when I played, the music is going to sound a little stiff. So the physical is an extension of the musicality."

One lesson he is sure to share with Penfield students: practice the fundamentals.

"My theory about learning to play an instrument and improvising is you have to work on all possible scenarios --- a half-step, a whole step, a minor third --- you need to do all the variations so that if you hear it, you've already done it so many times you don't need to think about it," Harris says. "Then you can get beyond thinking about notes and you can think in terms of gesture and dance."

There are other complexities to his improvisational style.

"I think a lot in terms of communication with other musicians on the bandstand and also in terms of shape," he says. "I'm a very visual improviser. I see shapes and then I twist them and manipulate them and spread them out as opposed to playing lines."

Harris cites two jazz artists who he believes worked especially well with shape.

"Certainly Coltrane where he's taking very simple structures and moving them around through the changes. Keith Jarrett has a great sense of melody, so sometimes the shape is hidden, or the melody is so strong that you're not even perceiving it as a shape."

Although Harris is finding success in jazz, he has what he terms an "Armageddon Theory" when it comes to the business. And it keeps him on his toes.

"I'm on Blue Note now and I'm making records now, but anything can happen tomorrow," he says. "This is a huge opportunity for me to travel the world, and learn. My mind is fresh right now; I'm in great shape physically. Every year of my life has been better than the previous one, so my mentality is, I'm not going to waste it."

To Harris, wasting this opportunity would mean not taking chances.

"That's why I'm not going to do a bunch of standards. If I'm going to make a record with a quartet I can make that on my own," he says. "If I'm on Blue Note and I'm going to get the publicity and the distribution, I'm going to take advantage of a larger budget than I could probably have on my own and I'm going to make records like TheGrand Unification Theory."

And despite his place at the top of the polls, he remains self-critical.

"I also feel like there's a certain level that I have to get to and I'm not there and it's very frustrating for me," he says. "I feel like I want to get there while the spotlight is on me. So it's definitely a race against time for me."

Stefon Harris plays with various local student ensembles at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, February 4 and 5, at Penfield High School. Special guests include the Eastman School of Music's John Beck and Howard Potter, Nazareth College's Kristen Shiner-McGuire, Penfield teacher John Bagale, and local musician Brad Paxton. Tickets: $10 adults; $6 students available at Penfield High's music office, The Bop Shop, Muzet, American Music, and the Penfield and Webster branches of Canandaigua National Bank, which sponsors the Penfield/CNB Jazz Series.