Stefon Harris + Blackout ‘Sonic Creed’ (Motéma Music) 5/5

In 1999 the American jazz vibraphonist Stefon Harris was noted by the Los Angeles Times as being one of the most important young artists in jazz. Since that time he has confirmed his early promise, working with some of the biggest names in jazz., including Kenny Barron, Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter. He has also steadily amassed an impressive discography with several critically acclaimed albums to his credit.

His latest album, which is due to be released on 28th September, is a further collaboration with Blackout following on from their Grammy nominated album ‘Urbanus’ from 2009 and 2004’s ‘Evolution’.

Harris was inspired to record this latest offering by asking himself 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”. Thankfully, the decision to record was the right one.

Harris states that the album 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. The album explores afresh the music of masters such as Bobby Hutcherson, Abbey Lincoln, Wayne Shorter and Horace Silver.

This is a very varied album and all the better for that. Each performance is completely different from the last. The album opens in familiar territory with “Dat Dere” but in a very funkified mode. Harris explains that every Blackout record starts with a classic tune which we put a Blackout stamp on. This is a wonderful tribute to Art Blakey, who Harris describes as a mentor of the highest order.

“Chasin’ Kendall” was written for Harris’ two sons and is a remembrance and reflection on family get-togethers that he experienced growing up. The music reminiscent of the likes of Donny Hathaway, The Temptations and Marvin Gaye. It is clear that the group are adept at bringing elements of R&B, pop, hip-hop and funk into their modern jazz mix.

“Let’s Take A Trip To The Sky” introduces us to the talents of vocalist Jean Baylor.

Horace Silver’s “The Cape Verdean Blues” is next and is great fun to hear and, I imagine, to play on. The subtle tempo changes add to the interest on this jazz staple.

“Go” from the pen of saxophonist Wayne Shorter follows and, once again, is in contrast to all that has preceded it. The sound pallet included bass clarinet and marimba. Casey Benjamin, the saxophonist here, playing what I take to be vocoder as he does on at least one other track.

Harris has mentioned Abbey Lincoln as an influence upon his own music in the way that he learned from the vocalist how to phrase and here he produces a delicate reading of “Throw It Away”. The studio lights were turned off so that the band were performing in pitch black darkness, summoning up the spirit of Abbey Lincoln.
Fellow vibraphonist the late Bobby Hutcherson contributed “Now”. With vocals from Jean Baylor, this is an outstanding performance which is enhanced with the addition of violin and cello. Throughout the album we have subtle electronics added to the sound mix which simply enhance the overall production.

The album ends with a delightful tribute to Michael Jackson, “Gone Too Soon”. Here Harris performs a duet with a new name on the vibraphone, Joseph Doubleday. Doubleday is the first ever vibraphonist to be accepted to the Jazz Studies programme at Julliard and is already a sideman with saxophonist Chris Potter, pianist Kenny Barron and Ralph Peterson. As I mentioned accolades, here’s another to end with. Harris has been named a recipient of the 2018 Doris Duke Artist Awards and also tops the vibraphonist category in the 66th Annual DownBeat Critics Poll.

If you only buy one jazz album this year make it this one. You will be rewarded many times over.

A US tour to celebrate the release will commence in October with a European tour set for July 2019.

Alan Musson