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Searching for Notes

For vibraphonist Stefon Harris, exploration wins over tradition any day

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The changes are nominated with musical hints, a few notes of another melody, or a change in tempo or rhythm. The rest of the group either coalesces around the new direction, or it does not. “Sometimes they don’t follow, even when it’s me,” he says. “But that’s all right, for the music to work there has to be conflict and struggle, tension and release. Decisions have to be passed around so that everyone is involved at every point.”

Unpredictability is essential to Harris’ musical philosophy, which values the risks of exploration over the safety of tradition. “For me it is important to distinguish between creativity and discovery. Creativity means taking A and B and combining them in some way; I’m limited to what I already know. But in discovery I’m literally looking for the notes, I don’t know where I’m going, and it keeps me growing.”

While his ability to render his ideas is grounded in years of practice, Harris views their source as a mystery. “Sometimes I go back to something I wrote when I was in eighth grade, even before I knew much about music,” he says, “and it’s still good. Now I can express my ideas with more detail, but I still can’t understand where they come from.”

Harris’ oil-and-water combination of intellectual discipline and freewheeling inspiration is mirrored in the namesake of his highly praised CD, “Grand Unification Theory.” That theory, the Holy Grail of modern science, aims to reconcile the fundamental incompatibilities of physics at the largest and smallest scales. It took him a year to compose the extended suite to express the literally cosmic story. “I started with the song titles,” Harris says. “I would wake up, sit at the piano and wait.”

His next recording aims to hybridize the sonic intensity of electronic keyboards with the nuanced subtlety of acoustic instruments. “It’s a sign of the times,” he says. “My generation has to find a way to define itself musically. There is so much body programmed into the synthesized instruments that a triad can sound like a symphony.”

But for all its power, Harris believes, technology has its limitations. “The mechanics make acoustic instruments more expressive. You set up the vibrations and feel the sound; you can’t ‘feel’ a digital controller.”

He played a variety of instruments before settling on the vibraphone and marimbas. “It was the music itself that attracted me,” he says. “But this is what I play the best, and it’s perfect for the democratic process of my ensemble concept. I can play softly, come up from inside the music, or spread it over everything.”

“You can’t do that with a trumpet,” Harris says. “Of course there are things you can do with a trumpet that you can’t do with the vibes.”

While he draws inspiration from fellow vibraphonists, especially the late Milt Jackson, he says his greatest inspiration was trumpeter Miles Davis — “especially the Miles of ‘Filles De Kilimanjaro’ era,” Harris says. “That music was alive. Miles put together just the right musicians, and anything could happen.”

Bringing together the right musicians and creating a musical space where anything can happen is Harris’ goal. What happens from there depends on the energy of the audience and the responsiveness of the players.

If you listen, Harris insists, the music tells you where it wants to go. S

The Stefon Harris Quartet performs at the Camp Concert Hall at the University of Richmond’s Booker Hall of Music on Monday, Sept. 15, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $13-$26. Call 289-8980.

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