Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Harris, Stefon (Deleon)

Vibraphonist Stefon Harris brought renewed vitality to an instrument which had fallen out of favor in jazz performance. His two-mallet technique is quick and precise, never stagnant, and can evoke everything from whistling raindrops to waterfalls. His compositions reflect his extensive classical training and often incorporate extended brass and reed arrangements.

Stefon Deleon Harris was born on March 23rd, 1973 in Albany, New York. No one in the Harris family was a musician except for his older brother who studied trumpet. Harris taught himself the notes of the piano at the age of six when his family moved into in an apartment in Albany. The previous tenants had left behind an upright piano with numerous books in which the young Harris used to memorize the notes. Harris was reading music in the second grade and by the time he had reached the fourth grade his reading abilities were much more advanced than the rest of his schoolmates.

In junior high school, Harris studied with Richard Albagli. In an interview with jazz.com’s Eugene Marlow Harris said, “I hadn't really played any jazz at this point. And he just was an unbelievable musician and an incredible teacher who taught me a lot about music from the perspective of emotion, passion, and conviction, not just theory.”

Harris also played with the Empire State Youth Orchestra, for which he successfully auditioned as a both a percussionist and as a clarinetist. During this time he also learned how to play trumpet, French horn, bassoon, and the trombone.

After high school, Harris enrolled at the Eastman School of Music from 1991 to 1992, where he started playing the vibraphone. Although he majored in classical performance, Harris then transferred to the Manhattan School of Music to be closer to New York City's jazz scene. He graduated from MSM with his undergraduate degree, and later obtained his graduate degree in Jazz Performance from there in 1997.

While at the Manhattan School, Harris played with drummer Max Roach’s percussion ensemble M’Boom, with a small group led by Buster Williams,l and with pianist Eric Reed. In 1998, Harris toured with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and also gained notoriety as a member of guitarist Charlie Hunter’s Pound for Pound band.

After this early exposure, Blue Note Records signed the up-and coming-vibraphonist. The company then released his debut album, A Cloud of Red Dust, in 1998, which featured pianists Mulgrew Miller and Jason Moran and alto saxophonist Greg Osby. This album includes many of the characteristics found on later Harris albums, including an extended use of marimba and vibraphone in addition to large brass and reed ensembles. Songs of note from this album include “Sacred Forest” and “One String Blues.”

Harris followed up his debut album with 1999’s Black Action Figure. This album was nominated for a Grammy that same year and included the mellow piece “Collage” and the Latin influenced “Alovi.” In 2001, he released the album Kindred on September 11th.

On his 2003 album The Grand Unification Theory, Harris’s abilities as a composer shine. On the track “The Birth of Time," Harris plays a unison melody with the piano on this happy song, which sounds like it belongs in a children’s movie. Particularly evident on this song is Harris’s skillful use of orchestration. The brass and reed sections blend well together, creating a playful mood. Other songs of note from this album include “Corridor of Elusive Dreams.

In 2004, Harris along with his band Blackout, which featured alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin, released the album Evolution. This album featured a much more conventional jazz sound than previous Harris albums. On “Blackout,”. Harris mixes synthesized keyboards and flute, giving the tune a fusion feel. On the song “The Lost Ones,” Harris gives the listener a little bit of rhythm 'n' blues flavor, as the melody is once again led by Benjamin’s flute over a much more subdued drum beat. And on “Red-Bone, Netti-Bone,” the band goes hard over a sizzling Latin beat, which turns into a sort of Santana-Herbie Hancock sounding groove several minutes into the piece.

Harris’s most recent album, 2006’s African Tarantella, featured artists including trombonist Steve Turre and bassist Derrick Hodge. The album includes Harris's arrangement and reinterpretation of the Ellington-Strayhorn composition “Thanks for the Beautiful Land on the Delta.

Harris has had an affinity for classical music since his youth so it is no surprise that he was asked to join the Classical Jazz Quartet. The group features Harris, bassist Ron Carter, pianist Kenny Barron, and drummer Lewis Nash. The group has released several albums which include The Classical Jazz Quartet Plays Bach, The Classical Jazz Quartet Plays Rachmaninov, and The Classical Jazz Quartet Plays Tchaikovsky.

Stefon Harris tours with his group Blackout, which features saxophonist Marcus Strickland and bassist Ben Williams. Still early in his career, Harris has already demonstrated a range and consistent ability to surprise listeners.

Select Discography

As Stefon Harris

A Cloud of Red Dust (Blue Note, 1998)

Black Action Figure (Blue Note, 1999)

Kindred (Blue Note, 2001)

The Grand Unification Theory (Blue Note, 2003)

Evolution w/Blackout (Blue Note/EMI, 2004)

African Tarantella (Blue Note, 2006)

With the Classical Jazz Quartet

The Classical Jazz Quartet Plays Bach (2002)

The Classical Jazz Quartet Plays Rachmaninov (2006)

The Classical Jazz Quartet Plays Tchaikovsky (reissued in 2006, originally issued in 2001)

Contributor: Jared Pauley