The SFJAZZ Collective, featuring Stefon Harris, front left, will perform music from Motown legend Stevie Wonder at an Anderson Center for the Performing Arts concert on Thursday, Oct. 6. Binghamton University is the second stop on the Collective's fall tour.
SFJAZZ Collective to present a night of wonderful songs
September 30, 2011Tweet
Stefon Harris chuckled when asked how he picked a Stevie Wonder song to arrange for the SFJAZZ Collective’s tribute to the musical icon.
“From a practical standpoint, it’s tough to pick one Stevie Wonder song because they all are so incredible,” said Harris, a Grammy-nominated vibraphonist.
Harris is one of one eight jazz greats who are part of the SFJAZZ Collective. The ensemble will bring their reinterpretations of Wonder’s music to the Anderson Center for the Performing Arts at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6. Tickets are $30, general public; $25, faculty and staff; and $15, students (Call 607-777-ARTS or visit anderson.binghamton.edu). In addition, the Anderson Center will donate $5 from each ticket sale to the United Way for flood-relief efforts.
Formed in 2004, the group meets each spring for a multi-week residency in the nonprofit organization’s San Francisco headquarters and rehearses the works of a chosen musician, along with original compositions from group members. The Collective, which this year also includes drummer Eric Harland, pianist Edward Simon, bassist Matt Penman, trombonist Robin Eubanks, trumpeter Avishai Cohen and saxophonists Mark Turner and Miguel Zenon, then records a live CD and tours all over the world in the spring and fall.
This marks the first year that the SFJAZZ Collective has ventured away from the works of a jazz master and focused instead on a pop/R&B artist. The Collective has previously explored the music of greats such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk.
The decision to pay tribute to Wonder has proven popular, Harris said.
“The public reaction has been very, very good,” he said. “People seem to feel it was a great choice and the way we handled the music was adventurous and very much in line with the character of the Collective – taking lots of chances and being creative in the arrangements.”
In fact, Harris emphasized that recording popular music has always been “a real tradition of jazz.”
“I would say it’s more unusual in terms of the history of jazz to be recording the music of older jazz musicians,” Harris said. “John Coltrane wasn’t recording the music of Sidney Bechet, but he did do ‘My Favorite Things.’ As you go through the history of the music, you’ll find that the actual pattern is far more consistent in terms of choosing the popular music of the day and doing jazz versions of it than it is about rearranging the music of the past.”
While other SFJAZZ Collective members chose well-known hits such as “Superstition,” “Do I Do,” “Sir Duke” and “My Cherie Amour” to arrange, Harris went deep into the Motown legend’s catalog. The self-proclaimed “huge fan” chose “Visions” from the 1973 album Innervisions.
“One of the things I look for is a melody I can fall in love with,” Harris said. “And I love the melody on that composition. The other thing I look for is something that’s not thoroughly arranged because there is more leeway in what I can do with it.”
A song about having hope for a brighter future, “Visions” is one of Wonder’s sparsest compositions, featuring only electric piano, upright bass and acoustic guitar. The song’s lack of drums played a role in Harris’ decision to rearrange it, he said. When the Collective opens “Visions”, its members use their instruments to add a sense of excitement to the song’s optimism.
“Picking a song without drums allows me to play any type of rhythm I choose and I wouldn’t sound like I was modifying Stevie Wonder’s music,” said Harris, who also considered the song “Look Around” from Wonder’s 1971 album Where I’m Coming From. “What I did was bring something else that wasn’t there. That’s a big part of why I chose that composition.”
A graduate of Albany High School and the Manhattan School of Music, Harris has received numerous honors in the jazz world and is considered one of the genre’s young, rising stars. Harris’ 2009 album Urbanus, recorded with his ensemble Blackout earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. Earlier this year, he released Ninety Miles, a CD/DVD recorded in Cuba with saxophonist David Sanchez, trumpeter Christian Scott and Cuban musicians.
Harris first joined the SFJAZZ Collective in 2008 and is now in his fourth stint with the group.
“The concept of the Collective is absolutely brilliant,” he said. “One of the things that is really special is the idea that we are all leaders and we get together for a limited period of time. Then we go off to our own different worlds – different bands, some of us doing electric music, some of us doing traditional jazz. When we get back together, it’s always fresh.
“It’s so inspiring to be around musicians who have pushed themselves and challenged themselves. Does it get easier? I don’t think it gets easier: It gets better.”
Harris also has a love that coincides with the mission of the SFJAZZ Collective: education. The group members spend part of their residency at SFJAZZ hosting educational programs for youth and adults in the San Francisco area. Harris serves as a faculty member in jazz studies at New York University and said he knew as a child that he wanted to teach someday.
“Most careers are a reflection of who you are,” he said. “Even as I learned material, I was always excited to share it with others. I was never someone who hoarded information – it was just as exciting to help someone else along. It’s partly just who I am, but I also had amazing teachers in upstate New York who helped me understand the importance of mentorship.”
A two-week residency speaking to elementary-schools students in Iowa after he graduated from music school was the spark needed to delve further into teaching, he said.
“I loved the challenge of figuring out how to reach people,” Harris said. “My real focus (now) is education: trying to figure out a system that is effective in terms of helping people get a good start in music. I’m taking it as a challenge in the way I took on learning how to play. … I’m comfortable saying that at least 50 percent of my real passion is education.”
The SFJAZZ Collective’s onstage show will consist of half Stevie Wonder songs and half original compositions from the Collective. The songs change nightly, Harris said, as group members alternate coming up with setlists.
“Hopefully, the music will be part of the moment,” Harris said about the upcoming Binghamton University concert. “It depends on the weather, what happened in the news, how the stock market is. Hopefully, we will share an experience together that will be memorable.”
More about the SFJAZZ Collective
Read an interview with SFJAZZ Collective trumpeter Avishai Cohen by Chris Kocher of pressconnects.com.