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Lion Killer

Photo by Nitin Vadukul

Something’s afoot. In 2000, hard-bop trumpeter Wallace Roney jumped the Young Lion ship, adding vocal samples and electric instrumentation to that year’s No Room for Argument. Then, mid-30s straight-ahead valvesman Roy Hargrove slipped the acoustic mainstream in early 2003, piling hip-hop, groove, funk and rap into his own HardGroove. And hot on Hargrove’s heels was young traditionalist trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who plugged in last fall with the pleasantly woozy, electronics-infused Sonic Trance. Now comes Evolution (Blue Note), a bass-whumping, R&B-soaked, hip-hop-tinged, Fender Rhodes–fueled electric-acoustic mix from 30-year-old Stefon Harris, the most forward-thinking post-bop vibraphonist to show up in three decades. Coincidence? Hardly, says Harris.

“I definitely think there’s a movement brewing,” says Harris by phone. “If you look at the late ’80s, and ’90s, if you look at the Young Lions movement, you have a lot of young musicians who were rewarded for being able to re-create sounds from the past. What’s shifted, in my opinion, is that the recording industry is now suffering so much, there are no great rewards for being able to re-create sounds from the past. So you have a whole new generation of young musicians, of my generation and a little older than me, who are deciding, ‘You know what? We might as well do what we want to do.’ We’re really finally defining the music for ourselves. We’re saying that jazz is an art form that is made up of its practitioners, the sound of the music. So if you have someone on the bandstand who’s into hip-hop, it’s not really jazz if you don’t hear that influence there.”

This is, of course, heresy to many hardcore jazzheads, who look to artists like Hargrove and Harris to keep the neoclassical fires burning. To Harris, however, change is not only inevitable but necessary if the music is to survive. “I think that people get the notion of the tradition of jazz and the history of jazz confused,” Harris explains. “Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, those people are the history of jazz, but not the tradition of jazz. The tradition of jazz is creativity, it’s the expression of the individual within the context of a community, it’s spontaneity, it’s group interaction. So I think by playing music from the past, and playing it in a very stylized manner, you’re actually not playing traditional jazz. It’s as if you’re playing classical music. You’re trying to realize the vision of someone else, and that’s a contradiction to the essence of jazz itself. As a result of that Young Lions thing, a lot of artists — and the audience — missed out on the beauty of an entire generation. So these are all ideas I wanted to address with Evolution. It’s really about my passion for the art form.”

Harris assembled his own dream band for the project: the fiery young altoist Casey Benjamin, the eclectic keyboardist Marc Cary and the thumping acoustic bassist Darryl Hall, all of whom have been on his wish list for years, with longtime associate Terreon Gully holding down the drum chair. Collectively called Blackout (“It’s about blacking out the narrow definition of jazz,” the vibist says), they’ve quickly cohered into a tight unit. I caught the group’s April CD-release performance at NYC’s Jazz Standard, for which Harris dispensed with any set list and just followed the flow. In the main Blackout originals (plus a delicate reading of Sting’s “Until”), the music that night was by turns lyrical, funky, incendiary, sultry, swinging and — something jazz mostly abandoned some long time ago — often joyously danceable, as Harris, who has never seemed happier onstage, demonstrated throughout the evening.

Harris is, in fact, having the time of his life. “The most exciting part for me is that we don’t know where it’s going to go right now. There’s a lot for me to learn here, and I think everyone in the band feels that way. In this current setting, I can use anything that inspires me. We’re all very serious about it, and at the same time we’re having a blast.”

Stefon Harris and Blackout appear at the Jazz Bakery through Sunday, June 13.