The SF JAZZ Collective returns to the Dakota on March 19 for one of the most anticipated musical performances of the year. The world-class ensemble will feature the repertoire of Chick Corea, legendary keyboardist and new compositions.
The SF JAZZ Collective, an award-winning all-star octet includes saxophonist David Sánchez and drummer Obed Calvaire, founding member and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, trombonist Robin Eubanks, pianist Edward Simon and bassist Matt Penman.
SFJAZZ is a jazz presenting and educational institution based in San Francisco — a nonprofit devoted to jazz, showcasing jazz and encouraging the development of jazz. thro
The MSR caught up with famed vibraphonist-composer-educator Stefon Harris (SH) on his SF JAZZ tour bus to talk about SF JAZZ Collective, rising star vibraphonists, his other projects, and the presidential election.
Right: Stefon Harris (Photo courtesy sfjazz.org)
MSR: The SF JAZZ Center’s historic opening night concert happened on Jan 23. A highlight was The SF JAZZ Collective performing “Spain” with Chick Corea. How would you sum up that exciting evening?
SH: It was an incredible evening of music. The level of musicians that were in that room playing music together was unbelievable. Truly an historic moment. But even outside of the music itself, I was just very moved at what I think is the ultimate social statement, meaning the opening of a building like that. It’s a real testament to the cultural progress in America that we’ve been able to open a free-standing building dedicated to this art form for the first time. It’s been a long time coming. And I’m just really happy for Randall Klein [SF JAZZ Founder-Executive Director] and all the board members at SF JAZZ for this major accomplishment.
MSR: You’ve been with the collective since 2008. During this time the Collective has explored the work of Wayne Shorter (2008), McCoy Tyner (2009), Horace Silver (2010), Stevie Wonder (2011-12), and now the collective is turning its attention to the work of legendary pianist and composer Chick Corea. What does having this extraordinary opportunity and experience to interface with Corea’s music and perform new arrangements of his classic tunes mean to you?
SH: I think for the collective, the music of Chick Corea is a perfect choice because he’s always been a visionary. His music is consistently progressing. He really epitomizes the ideologies that jazz is about the here and now, and about moving forward. So, for us to celebrate a great composer like that, I think is a perfect fit.
And I also think it’s great that many of the composers we choose to celebrate are still here with us so that we pay tribute to them while they’re here with us, and many times we get to perform with them as well. It’s such a major influence on me that I’m just on cloud nine to have the opportunity to take a look at it, contribute to it in whatever way I can.
MSR: The SF JAZZ Collective is an all-star club that does a lot of things well. Besides learning new music by collective members and witnessing how they create on the spot, what is the one thing that you have discovered that surprises you most?
SH: I wouldn’t say it surprises me, but I’m very impressed with how democratic our process is. We’re all leaders. We all share responsibilities. When there’s a decision that needs to be made, we send out emails and we take a vote and we decide. We’ve really learned about conflict resolution (laughs).
Not that there’s been a tremendous amount of that. I’m really happy to see the cultural manifestation of democracy in an ensemble. It helps continue to put the music in a context that is relevant to a broader audience than just music lovers. I think it helps people understand the values of the art form. And it’s a manifestation of it, sonically, and in practice of how we operate.
MSR: What do you think about some of the rising star vibraphonists on the scene such as Warren Wolf and Jason Marsalis?
SH: Both of them are really gifted musicians. I’m a fan of both of them. Warren is just unbelievably talented. He’s definitely going to be a significant part of the history of the music. We talk from time to time. I do whatever I can to be a positive influence for him. He certainly is a positive inspiration for me as well.
And Jason is one of those musicians who is just gifted far beyond the instrument itself. He has so much musical ability. I’m just excited to continue to watch and see what it is he chooses to come up with and give to the world.
There’s also a young man who is in Boston right now named Jason Doubleday. He’s gonna be absolutely incredible. They keep coming. It’s inspiring for me. I try to talk to them. I try and help out in whatever way I can. And in turn, they keep me young.
MSR: You are still young. And when we see you at the Dakota on March 19, it will be just in time for an early birthday celebration as your big day is coming up on March 23.
SH: It’s a big one. I’ll be ready to celebrate.
MSR: Recently I watched an episode of MTV’s Killer Collabs and I thought about the Ninety Miles Project. I saw a Youtube clip of you, David Sánchez, and Nicholas Payton in San Sebastian. You guys sound great together. What’s it been like to tour with them and make music together?
SH: Making music with another human being is an incredible experience. You really form a bond in a way that is completely different from any other experience I’ve had in life. So, after you’ve been on the road and you’ve played music together, you really feel like brothers. So, for us to get on the bandstand, we really genuinely love each other.
And I think the thing that we love the most is that we push each other. We inspire each other. The conversations that we have when we’re backstage,and when we’re getting ready to on, the energy, love, and passion for what it is that we do and for the reason that we do it, while in terms of focusing on what we’re getting ready to give to people, it just is a great reminder and inspiration to keep pushing forward and keep challenging yourself.
And it’s great to do collaborations because when you’re only with your own ensembles, of course you’re able to challenge yourself, but you tend to challenge yourself in very specific ways that come from your own imagination. But when you’re in a group with several leaders, you have no control over what anyone else is going to do and it helps you become more humble and more flexible.