In jazz’s accelerated evolution, a generation flies by every five or 10 years, and each era can be defined largely by a handful of innovative drummers. And in the 21st century, no musician has staked a better claim as this generation’s most influential trap set explorer than Eric Harland.
Thankfully, Bay Area music lovers have had plenty of opportunities to witness Harland's ascent via his numerous gigs with veteran masters like Charles Lloyd, McCoy Tyner, and Terence Blanchard, and his eight-year tenure in the SFJAZZ Collective (2005-2012).
Harland’s relationship with SFJAZZ enters a tantalizing new phase with his first round of programming as one of the organization’s four Resident Artistic Directors (along with Blanchard, Zakir Hussain, and Esperanza Spalding). The four-night run kicks off Thursday, Jan. 29, with TEJ, a new trio featuring pianist Taylor Eigsti and guitarist Julian Lage, both Bay Area-raised prodigies who transitioned musically into young adulthood with uncommon grace. On Friday, Jan. 30, Harland celebrates the release of Vipassana, the second album by Voyager, his atmospheric ensemble showcasing a daunting cross-section of top New York players (Voyager also performs Monday, Feb. 2, at Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz).
In addition to Lage and Eigsti, Voyager brings together tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, guitarist Nir Felder, bassist Harish Raghavan and vocalist Chris Turner. Where the band’s first album, 2010’s Live By Night, featured a quintet playing intricate, high-energy music in concert, Harland expanded the ensemble and pared down the tunes for the second album, a studio recording marked by simple, almost folky melodies, spacious textures, and hip-hop inflected beats.
“I wanted it to be completely different in sound and message,” says Harland, 36, speaking from his home in rural Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Philadelphia. “I wanted to capture what we do and hear musically in a current, meditative context.”
On Saturday, Jan. 31, Harland joins forces with the Grammy-winning R&B combo Snarky Puppy, and he closes the run on Sunday, Feb. 1, with his most unlikely gambit. In an experiment that could just as easily turn into a fiasco as open up new frontiers for improvisation, an expansive ensemble drawn from Voyager and Snarky Puppy interacts musically with two top video gamers, Mr. Finesse and Panoramic, facing off in a Madden NFL 15 match-up accompanied by live commentators Daniel Rovin and T. Lew. For Harland, the concept flows from his personal passion for football and a long-standing relationship with video games that he passed on to his 13-year-old son.