Harris brings fresh brand of jazz

8:00:55 AM CDT - Thursday, September 09, 2004

By Shannon Littlejohn (Shannon.Littlejohn@wichita.edu)

"Vibrant," "vital," "vivid." Those words run synonymously through critics' reviews of vibraphonist-composer Stefon Harris, the 31-year-old virtuoso who has been knocking down the jazz world's door with his brand of jazz and percussion.

Stefon Harris
Jazz vibraphonist Stefon Harris, second fromthe right, and hist latest project, Blackout, a hybrid of acoustic music and progressive sounds, has been selling out crowds from Kennedy Center to the North Sea Jazz Festival

Courtesy Photo

He's been known to give his audiences "a vibrant afternoon of jazz percussion," music that is "fresh and vital" and, when paired with other musicians, "vivid combinations."

Harris will be on campus Sept. 25 to kick off the College of Fine Arts' Connoisseur Series with his latest project, Blackout, a hybrid of acoustic music and progressive sounds featuring band members Casey Benjamin (alto sax), Marc Cary (keyboards), Darryl Hall (bass) and Terreon Gully (drums).

Harris' and Blackout's recently released CD, "Evolution," is a blend of jazz and R&B with a hip-hop percussion accent that has been praised for "pursuing jazz on its own terms" (Washington Post). The band has been performing to sold-out crowds from the Kennedy Center to the North Sea Jazz Festival.

While in Wichita, Harris will set aside some time to work with School of Music students, says J.C. Combs, professor of percussion. Harris, who considers himself a lifetime student of music, conducts clinics and lectures at schools and universities throughout the country.

The Los Angeles Times calls Harris, a three-time Grammy nominee, "one of the most important young artists in jazz."

"He's nothing short of phenomenal," says Combs.

In just six years, Harris has collaborated with several bands and produced five attention-grabbing CDs. He also has received the Martin E. Segal Award from the Lincoln Center and been voted Best Mallet Player by the Jazz Journalist Association, Debut Artist of the Year by Jazztimes, Downbeat Magazine's Critics Poll Winner for Vibraphone and Rising Star, Newsweek's Best Jazz CD, Best New Talent and Readers Poll Best Vibraphonist by Jazziz Magazine and Chicago Tribune's Debut of the Year.

Although classically trained (his early ambitions were to perform as a member of the New York Philharmonic), his first exposure to Charlie Parker's music took him in a passionate new direction. A graduate (with bachelor's and master's degrees) of the Eastman School of Music in Manhattan, he has recorded as part of the Classical Jazz Quartet, a series of jazz-interpreted classics with Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Lewis Nash. He has also recorded and toured with the likes of Joe Henderson, Wynton Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, Buster Williams, Kenny Barron, Charlie Hunter, Kurt Elling, Cyrus Chestnut, Steve Coleman and Steve Turre.

Harris' other CDs include "A Cloud of Red Dust," "Black Action Figure," "Kindred" and "Grand Unification Theory."

He explained his approach to composing and performing in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "I want to make sure that I'm integrating everything that inspires me into the music and not sticking within a narrow definition of jazz. Because it's really about defining it for yourself."

Stefon Harris and Blackout will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25, at Miller Concert Hall, Duerksen Fine Arts Center as part of the Connoisseur Series for the College of Fine Arts. Series tickets are $60 with discounts available and individual tickets are $16 with discounts available; call the Fine Arts Box Office at 978-3233.

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