LIVE: Stefon Harris & Sonic Creed @ The Egg, 1/29/16
There’s always a celebratory feeling every time vibes master Stefon Harris does a concert in Greater Nippertown. As he himself said before the closer of his two-hours-plus set with his new band Sonic Creed at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre, “I tell ya, there’s nothing like coming home!” That said, I’ve always thought his hometown shows have the same kind of dynamic you get when an adult child returns to a house full of elders that still see him as a 15-year old kid. We actually saw that dynamic play out when a woman in the audience interrupted one of Harris’ raps to ask if he remembered how she presented one of his earliest shows while he was a student at Albany High School.
Harris handled the interruption like the seasoned pro he is, thanking the woman for giving him the opportunity to play live, and working it into his rap about how it’s the community that makes the music happen, not the big arts organizations that believe they are the center of the creative process. Harris’ own creative palate has expanded immeasurably since he first popped on the scene as another musical wunderkind signed by Blue Note. And at this show, those who still see him as that whiz kid had to face more than a little evidence that Stefon Harris is a grown man.
I could start with how Harris was dressed as he led his septet on stage – suit and tie in darkish colors, and glasses that were entirely serious-looking. But that’s just the externals, so let’s focus on the set-opener, an expansive take on Horace Silver’s “Cape Verdean Blues.” This was one of two pieces that came from Harris’ time with the superstar hive mind SFJAZZ Collective, but while that group’s take was all acoustic, Harris’ re-work sizzled with underlying electricity from Mike Moreno’s guitar and James Francies’ Fender Rhodes; the Rhodes and the Swyer’s piano made an L of Francies’ “office,” and he sat on the edge of his piano stool with his legs spread wide so he could use the pedals on both instruments. SFJAZZ’s work-up of Silver material was only serially interesting, so to see Harris give “Cape Verdean” the love and brightness it deserves – while putting his personal stamp firmly on it – was an absolute joy.
From there Harris dove into his own material, and it was the inspiration for that material that took the grown-man reality a step further. “Ellison’s Song” was written for Stefon’s three-year old son, and the piece is filled with hope, light and the kind of pride you see in a relatively new dad like Harris. Harris began the tune by asking the crowd to call out notes for him to play; he then took those suggestions and built them into a marvelous solo meditation, moving from vibes to marimba and back again, vocalizing the tune as he played. As the band slid in one by one, the piece grew like… well, like a child, from infant to toddler to laughing, happy kid.
Then there was “Let’s Take a Trip to the Sky,” dedicated to the girl he met on “her first day in New York, and my second,” and who later became his wife. Francies got the chance to work in the clear here, and someone should have put up a sign saying, “Caution: Genius at Work.” The dense classical lines he threw down morphed into a soft sound that was both loving and sexy, and his Fender/piano combination melded with Harris’ vibes and Elena Pinderhughes’ flute to make a harmonic that was simply otherworldly. Like any relationship, this piece had many twists and turns, but it also built to a climax that was absolutely glorious.
Pinderhughes looked like she walked right off a ’60s Blue Note album cover: Hair done up right, sleeveless grey dress, black tights with heels. But there was nothing vintage about her flute playing, combining soaring range and lyrical sense with an attack that’s Rhonda Rousey stong. Moreno’s firmly established in the jazz world as a leader – his latest World Culture Music release Lotus is required listening – but his longtime sideman experience let him fold easily into the band’s matrix while maintaining the riveting inside/outside sound that is his signature; his solo on “The Devil’s in the Details” was filled with that vibe, and his work on the epic, set-closing take on Wayne Shorter’s “Go” set the growling tone the piece required. Joshua Crombley’s been providing bass lines for Terence Blanchard these past couple of years, so he knew how to give this music the support it needed. Drummer Jonathan Pinson is as big a find as Pinderhughes, laying down titanic solos and fills throughout the night when he wasn’t engaged in a riotous ongoing dialogue with Harris that hopefully will be repeated in the coming years.
The capper for the grown-man metaphor came when Harris introduced the band, saying how he’s known Francies’ since he was in eighth grade, and how these players were either recent graduates or present students at institutions like Berklee, the New School, and the Manhattan School of Music. You could almost hear some of Harris’ longtime followers thinking, “Wait a minute! How could you know that young person since he was in 10th grade? You only just got out of high school youtself!” But the fact is that those days are long gone. Stefon Harris isn’t just on the same level as vibes legends like Gary Burton and Joe Locke. He’s a fully-fledged composer and leader who cuts his own swath in today’s jazz world, and the unique, dazzling sound that is Sonic Creed proves that the only thing still growing about Harris is the heights to which he will reach.