“I hate that a big band is so . . . big,” saxophonist, composer and arranger Stephen Philip Harvey said with a chuckle. “It’s financially a problem, but I just really like big band music.”
Harvey likes it so much that he’s putting aside the financial, organizational and logistical challenges of touring with a big band to bring the Stephen Philip Harvey Jazz Orchestra (SPHJO) to Cleveland’s Bop Stop Thursday night to support the release two weeks ago of the band’s debut recording, Smash! (Next Level, 2022).
Not only has the Youngstown State graduate assembled a crew of some of the region’s finest players, but his superhero-themed music has attracted northeast Ohio trumpet superstar Sean Jones who will be the band’s special guest at the Bop Stop concert and the following night at the Oaks Theater in suburban Pittsburgh.
There’s a little of everything in Harvey’s approach to big band writing. On Smash!, Harvey throws in some ominous horror-film riffs (it’s a superhero-themed recording, right?), soaring album-rock guitar solos from Lakewood’s Dan Bruce, urgent, cop-show horn riffs and on “Nefarious Plots,” solos by all four members of the band’s trombone section.
Harvey is a native of Columbus, but his family lived briefly in Cleveland and Youngstown before settling in Rochester, Pennsylvania, a town on the Ohio River northeast of Pittsburgh that despite its size (pop. 4,000) had been home to Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, Olympic gold-medal sprinter Lauryn Williams and singer Christina Aguilera.
But there wasn’t a lot of music there and no jazz to speak of, so Harvey grew up on the pop-punk and metal that was a staple of the town’s only music venue. “They’d be doing covers of people like Taking Back Sunday and Fall Out Boy, so I really got into that music.” At home, he heard mostly classical music and neo-soul, but crucially Harvey also grew up singing hymns. That was good for ear training and filling out harmonies.
And singing saved Harvey’s undergraduate career. Faced with a panic attack during his clarinet audition at Seton Hill University, Harvey stopped and asked “Hey, can I just sing?” He did and got in.
Graduating as a music education major, Harvey entered graduate school at Youngstown State with a composition portfolio, not a saxophone audition. “They kind of gambled on me,” Harvey admitted. “I got there and played for the first time, they were like, ‘We’ve got some stuff to work on with you.’”
Harvey got down to business, too.
“Stephen was one of the hardest working students I’ve ever worked with,” said Dave Morgan, the bassist and Harvey’s professor at Youngstown State University. “I could tell he just had a lot of music in him and was just looking for the tools to develop his own voice. His final recital of his original music was one of the best evenings of music I’ve ever experienced, and that was kind of the launching pad for what he’s doing now.”
“Theron Brown was my combo teacher the second year that I was there, and he really kicked my butt,” Harvey said. “I got to arrange some stuff, and I would bring it into rehearsal. We read it and sometimes we’d play it.
The “we” in question would eventually form the core of the SPHJO, including such familiar faces as alto saxophonists Chris Coles and Bobby Selvaggio. When it came time to fill out the band, Harvey cold-called players from the NEO and Pittsburgh scenes. “I’d say, ‘Hey, I admired your playing when I lived in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Do you want to play on this thing?”
Now based in Salisbury, Maryland where he has a couple of teaching gigs, Harvey has a pool of East Coast players to draw from for gigs in that area. He’s also written arrangements for octet that has played recent engagements at Youngstown’s Westside Bowl and at BLU Jazz+ in Akron. But the Cleveland gig will be special, not least because of the presence of Jones, who grew up in nearby Warren, Ohio. To add to the intrigue, Jones’ is coming off a fiery set at last week’s Tri-C JazzFest and a cover story in the latest issue of DownBeat magazine.
The trumpeter’s star power drew Harvey into his orbit early on. “While I was in grad school, I introduced myself to him in like 2014 or 2015; he probably doesn’t even remember,” Harvey said. “I was like, ‘Hey, I’m a composer, whatever, whatever, whatever,’ and he’s like, ‘Okay, cool, dude,'” perhaps sensing that Harvey was not quite ready. A bit later, Harvey had been selected for the young composer showcase at a Jazz Education Network conference and the two musicians met again with a more positive result. “I felt like I could say, ‘Hey, you want to come back to be near your hometown and the two major cities where you used to play as a young musician and be the featured musician with a big band?’ I thought maybe he’d be interested, and he was. So yeah, this our first time playing.”
note: I wrote a profile of Harvey for AllAboutJazz.com that will expand on the material presented here. I’m hoping that it will be published in the next few days and when it is, I’ll post a link here at let’s call this.