Eric Harland, the Drummer of Now

Eric Harland leads a unique residency at SFJAZZ this week complete with... Madden NFL 15?! (Photo: John Rogers)

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.”

Eric Harland and friend test-drive the video-game setup at SFJAZZ's Miner Auditorium. (Photo: Ross Eustis)
Eric Harland and friend test-drive the video-game setup at SFJAZZ's Miner Auditorium. (Photo: Ross Eustis)

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.

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“I see how he’s able to communicate with his friends,” Harland says. “It’s a whole social structure now. He’s got friends everywhere, and they can play against each other. It’s also an art, the way they play it, and get creative. I wanted to take what’s creative about gaming and what’s creative about playing football and commentating, and add live music into the mix. I have no idea what it’s going to sound like. But I haven’t had any idea of what anything I’m going to do sounds like.”

You could see Sunday’s concert as part of a long-running dialogue with pianist Jason Moran, the MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, former SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director, and childhood buddy of Harland’s from their days at Houston’s vaunted High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (other alumni include Beyoncé, Robert Glasper, Helen Sung, and Voyager’s Smith). In his first residency season, Moran booked two nights at SFJAZZ’s Miner Auditorium featuring his band accompanying Bay Area skateboarders, complete with a specially constructed halfpipe on the theater’s floor. The encounter was successful enough artistically and commercially (selling out both shows) that he reprised the event in his second residency season. Harland, for one, didn’t raise an eyebrow when he heard about the unprecedented pairing.

“Nope, it didn’t surprise,” he says. “We all loved to skate. It was always warm outside in Houston and you found a lot of activities. I knew with Jason, it was a matter of time before he combined a childhood memory with music. And at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts we had this thing called the Happening. Every day during lunch, any department could put on a show during lunchtime. We were always encouraged to be creative and explore different possibilities, to just try something new. Jason was just putting on a Happening.”

Part of what sets Harland apart from his prodigiously talented drumming peers is his combination of power and finesse, his incisive melodicism, and his uncanny ability to anticipate and shape the flow of bandstand interaction. Among his colleagues, his gift for elevating the energy on stage has come to be called “the Harland Effect,” says Eigsti, who’s also recording a live solo piano album at Piedmont Piano on Thursday, Feb. 12.

“It’s not only the level of intensity, it’s the mentality of dying for it, playing every note like it’s the last," Eigsti says. "I get a chance to play with so many awesome musicians, but he’s one who leaves this lasting impact.”

It’s a quality recognized by his elders as well as his contemporaries. Harland took over jazz’s most august drum chair when he joined Charles Lloyd’s New Quartet following the death of drum legend Billy Higgins. He’s forged such a deep creative bond with Lloyd that the tenor sax star recruited him for the trio Sangam, with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, who calls Harland “one of the finest drummers of our time.”

For Hussain, Harland isn’t an anomaly. He’s part of an international percussion phenomenon stretching from the New York City and the Caribbean to Mumbai and Chennai. “There’s a parallel here: in India and in the West, the level of drumming has suddenly shot up a hundredfold,” Hussain says. “There are so many great drummers here playing jazz, coming out of Houston or Boston or wherever. And they’re playing incredible. They just knock your socks off.”

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The fact that Harland stands out even amidst this profusion of talent makes him an inspired choice for SFJAZZ, while his insatiable musical curiosity means there’s no telling what he’ll do next.

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