From the December 2016 issue of DRUM! | By Bob Doershuk | Photography by Eddie Malluk
Fortitude. If every musician’s art represents an accumulation of experience, both good and bad, onstage and off, then considering the occasionally surreal nature of his upbringing, and zigzag path between jazz cellars and the church… How can Eric Harland be so focused?
Eric Harland pauses, as he often does, to think for a few seconds before replying.
Then he says, “Without having a sense of spirituality, I probably would approach the bandstand with more of a thought that maybe something is owed to me or that the musicians in the band should be listening to what I’m doing.”
This extraordinary drummer likes to emphasize certain words as he speaks. It’s like hitting one note in a pattern just a little harder, to make the point clearer.
A lot of reflection goes into what Harland plays and says. Of course, when he’s playing with McCoy Tyner, Charles Lloyd, Esperanza Spalding, or anyone for that matter, he does this in real time, if not a few seconds ahead. Obviously that’s true as well when he’s with his own groups: Voyager, whose upcoming album also features Indian percussion wizard Zakir Hussain and vocalist Shankar Mahadevan; Stem Sounds Music, with keyboardist James Francies and electronic specialist Love Science Music; and Aziza, an all-star quartet whose self-titled album dropped October 14 on the Dutch Dare2 label.
In conversation, though, he takes a little more time, just enough so that when he does expound on topics ranging from rhythmic intricacy to life’s elusive meanings, the words flow out evenly, punctuated by an occasional laugh and warmed by the smile that never seems to leave his voice.
To achieve this equanimity in his outlook and art, Harland followed an unusual path, beginning in his Houston hometown, where his mother came to believe that her young son wasn’t merely precocious.
“Being a religious person, it made her feel better about herself to feel that she was giving birth to the next Messiah. It was hard because I felt I had something to live up to,” he understates. “But I look at that stuff really differently now. My mom was working on her own sense of being and defining who she was. And it actually gave me a sense of self-worth from an early age. I could have had one of those moms that made me feel like a bastard child, who was maybe on drugs or smoking cigarettes or something like that. At the same time it gave me something to relate to that wasn’t bad.”
Amused, he paraphrases his younger self. “I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll check out this cat Jesus and see what the resemblance was, what he’s got going on.”
Okay, so Harland didn’t quite meet that high bar. But he was the only member of the family to inherit his mother’s musical gifts. Drum lessons began when he was just five years old. A year later, he got his first gig, playing with a gospel choir led by one Sister Daniels, with his mother on Hammond organ. They appeared weekly on a local TV show, Gospel Melody Hour, often backing celebrity guests including the Clark Sisters and the Williams Brothers. A few years after that, he began playing with the choir that his mother directed at the New Loyalty Baptist Church.
“I was doing backbeats there and when I sat in with my uncle, who was kind of a soul/jazz trumpet player,” he recalls. “I totally liked Bernard Purdie and Dennis Chambers and Vinnie Colaiuta; they were my inspiration because my uncle wanted me to just play the groove. I did get a certain discipline and understanding from that. I remember hearing, even at that age, other drummers play the same groove and I was like, ‘Why do they sound better than me?’ So I’d observe the way the used the pedal, the way they played the snare or hi-hat, maybe the way they played a little behind the beat.
“But even when I was playing with my mom in the church and my uncle at the club, I had this yearning to be freer,” Harland points out. “They wanted me to just play the groove but I didn’t appreciate that at the time. I felt like I had something to say. It was just me being young and wanting to express.”
Permission to explore came in the form of the John Coltrane Quartet’s A Love Supreme, the first album Harland ever bought, when he was about 12. “Then I found other guys that I loved, like Dave Weckl,” he remembers. “I listened to Chick Corea’s Elektric Band. Even though what they played was very syncopated and composed, I heard a lot of flexibility within that as well in the way those guys communicated with each other. I started listening to old Miles [Davis] albums and an array of musical geniuses. I began to realize why those players were so great. I mean, lots of players are awesome technicians but it’s a whole different animal to take that to another level.”
The next step was to start playing along with these artists, an exercise that Harland considers indispensable for all aspiring musicians. “A lot of guys like to transcribe. That’s great because you get to see the rhythmic process in front of you,” he says, again underscoring the key word. “That’s great for sight reading, but there’s something organic about listening to a player and trying to get the essence of their feel. I mean, you can execute what’s on paper. But you can’t get it.”
Harland cites his key influence to illustrate. “With Elvin [Jones], it wasn’t just polyrhythms. It was his nuance, the way he would keep a certain rumble and delay response to the beat yet he always knew where the 1 was. That allowed the sound of his groove to widen so he could fill it up with toms and snare and crashes. He was listening and orchestrating within the moment. He was utilizing his technique to communicate.”
Another pause and then Harland adds, “Tony Williams was one of the greatest technicians; he knew how to display everything at any given moment. Because he knew how to do that, he could do anything, so every time you listened to him you were amazed. But with Elvin you were amazed at what he created. That’s why he was one of the greatest communicators of the drums.”
All this sank in as young Harland dug in to his expanding collection of records. Soon he was pushing into new territories, though not necessarily drawing the right lessons from his forays.
“I was so in love with the way Trane and McCoy were playing that I wasn’t hearing that what they were doing had a lot to do with what Elvin played against it,” he says. “They were executing the groove, so I could freely interpret and lay ideas on top of it. The problem is that the grounding aspect was missing from what I was doing. I was playing as if I was doing the lead tenor solo or the piano part. Eventually I realized that I needed to work on how to support what I wanted to do. I already had all the stuff on top, so I spent a lot of time working on how to add more bottom. That’s when the evolution started to happen.”
Everything started coming together as Harland entered Houston’s High School For The Performing And Visual Arts and began playing with other young musicians. In his senior year he won first chair with the regional and state jazz bands. This gave him the opportunity to meet and perform with Wynton Marsalis during a workshop. The trumpeter liked what he heard so much that he wrote a letter of recommendation to the Manhattan School Of Music on Harland’s behalf. As a result, Harland was accepted and offered a full scholarship to boot.
An unusual educational experience followed — not in the classroom so much as in a series of challenges and epiphanies that would pull Harland out of school before graduating. His drumming was already formidable as he headed east. So was his weight: While still in his teens, Harland had peaked at around 380 pounds.
Looking back, the now svelte drummer — he once worked briefly as a fashion model — pinpoints the moment that inspired him to deal with his problem. “It was because of my god sister,” he recalls. “I asked her one day, ‘What’s a guy like me gotta do to get a girl that looks like you?’ She was like, ‘You just gotta lose weight.’ And I was like, ‘That’s it? I just gotta be skinny? Cool!’ And I just lost the weight! It was easy: I stopped eating as much as I was. I started working out. I went outside and ran around and played some basketball. Each time I got a little smaller, I got encouraged.”
This regimen continued when Harland arrived at the Manhattan School. Walking through the city, practicing every day and night, accelerated this weight loss. So did his budget: Away from his family table in Houston, he began subsisting on a diet of Chinese takeout or Cuban beans and rice. Eventually, he had dropped down to 160 pounds, but not without paying a price.
“For maybe three weeks I just stopped eating,” he says. “I don’t know why. I just didn’t have an appetite. And I felt great! But then I did this one show in Milwaukee, and after the show, I passed out. They took me to a doctor who said, ‘You’re suffering from malnutrition. You’ve got to get your vital signs back up.’ They put me on an IV. My mom came and flew me back.”
Harland chuckles as he looks back at his homecoming. “Naturally, everyone in Texas is a little bigger down there because they love barbecue and it’s impossible to eat a lot of barbecue and stay small. Because I came back from New York so skinny, they thought I was doing cocaine or drugs I hadn’t even heard of. I’m glad I hadn’t — maybe I would have tried them!”
With a new diet that cut out fried foods, supplemented his vitamin intake with Geritol, and made other adjustments, Harland charted a new life for himself — and not just physically. To complement his recovery, Harland began a spiritual exploration as well. For about three years he gave up smoking, drinking, and even having sex. He began studying theology at Houston Baptist University, his ambition now to become an ordained minister. But this, too, eventually passed.
“At first it was great,” he remembers. “It was my introduction to giving more attention to man’s relationship with God and trying to understand what it means to live on this planet. But as I kept listening I started to find where I just didn’t agree with certain things. I found Christianity to be just a little bit too extreme. I didn’t agree that you needed to accept Jesus to get into Heaven, like God said, ‘I’m gonna tempt you with all these things that will lead you down the wrong path, but if you accept this one thing you can come and live in the Kingdom.’ I wouldn’t do that to my own kids! No matter what my children do, whether I agree or disagree, I’ll always love them. I feel like that’s the way the universe is.”
Infographic: Juan Castillo
Back To The Bandstand
His health restored and his soul in balance, Harland eventually returned to New York, where he found himself unexpectedly in high demand. “All these musicians wanted me to be in their band full-time,” he says. “That was the biggest compliment that any of them could have given me. I’ve never played with anyone who said, ‘I don’t want to play with you anymore. I need to get somebody else.’ The beautiful thing was that no one was shy about saying, ‘Maybe you should work on this’ or, ‘Man, you should check this out.’ I listened to it all because it was input, right or wrong. I don’t want my ego to feel like I’m so good that I can’t listen to what someone else has to say. That only encouraged me to explore new ideas. My whole thing was, I’ll learn whatever I need to learn to make this the best situation possible. Basically, how can I be of service?”
His first gig was an album date with guitarist Rodney Jones, one of his teachers at the Manhattan School. Two of the artists on that session, saxophonist Greg Osby and pianist Kevin Hayes, started calling him for work. So did some of his former classmates, including vibraphonist Stefon Harris and pianist Jason Moran, who had actually met Harland in high school. As word spread, his calendar filled with shows and sessions for Geri Allen, Michael Brecker, Betty Carter, Kenny Garrett, Bobby Hutcherson, Nicholas Payton — basically, every major jazz artist who recognized that Harland had something unique to offer.
That something was his way of listening and interacting. Over time Harland nurtured an approach that involved sublimating the temptation to play the structure of the tune — building toward the chorus, say — and focusing instead on where he and the music are. Strangely, he credits in part his formerly obsessive eating with helping to develop this perspective.
“When I was big, I was living in the moment,” he reflects. “I dedicated myself to eating a lot every day because I really, really loved food. That’s how I listen too: in the moment. The funny thing is that I didn’t know I was listening differently. People would say, ‘Man, it feels like you’re really listening to what I’m playing!’ I just felt that was what everyone does. That’s the most important thing, because every musician will have something different to say at different times.
“It’s not just music,” he suggests: “Even in conversations, you give someone the space to be themselves, to really open up. To me, both situations are one. Take, for example, right now: We’re having a dialog, understanding one another. But time is still passing. Once you understand that there’s always going to be time and that it has its own structure, you don’t necessarily have to keep that structure. So once we establish a song form, it exists and communication can happen within that structure. You honor it at certain points by reminding the listener, ‘This is us going to the bridge.’ At the same time, you hear whatever you’d like to express in the moment.”
The Magic Of Now
Examples of Harland’s approach abound throughout his catalogue, most recently on Aziza, the self-titled album featuring Harland, saxophonist Chris Potter, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and bassist Dave Holland. These eight tracks document the power of living and inventing fully in the present, each musician feeding and drawing from the others without losing sight of the composition.
Well, maybe except on the opening cut. “Aziza Dance” stands out as the only one that’s rooted on a steady beat, with Harland conjuring Al Jackson Jr., backbeats on the snare, eighth-notes on hi-hat. But even here — Harland might suggest especially here — he follows his usual instincts, even if he has to temper them a bit. “The band adopts a pulse together,” he insists. “You have to honor that along with your own internal pulse and then find a way to stretch the music just a little bit so it doesn’t feel too stifled, like, ‘We can only go down this one road.’ That is a challenge at times, like you establish this clock but you can’t break away from it. You have to have that degree of separation within yourself.”
Harland found a way of addressing this through an exercise he developed years ago. “I would have my feet play in time and my hands play freely,” he explains. “And vice versa: My hands would play in time and I’d allow my feet to play freely. So I developed a sense of half of my body doing one thing and the other half doing another thing. Then I was able to switch it from right to left, so my right side would keep the groove and my left side would be freer. That independence gives you the ability to honor the internal clock and then move in and out of conversational approaches with flexibility.
“So it’s kind of both things. I never like to feel limited to being in just one zone. But if that’s the decision, we can find freedom in it as well.” The notion of freedom within form is as central to Aziza as it has always been to Harland. For this reason, each member of the group contributed at least one original tune to the session, written specifically with the other musicians in mind. Harland came up with a song whose title explains the motive behind his composition.
“I wrote ‘Friends’ because I am friends with all of those guys,” he notes. “I heard a Stewart Copeland/Sting/Police vibe on this one part because I knew Lionel could play it in his West African tradition. I knew that Chris would eat it up on the solo section I wrote. And while I love all of Dave’s old stuff — Conference Of The Birds, Triplicate — I also like the albums he made with Michael Brecker. This band in a way reminds me of Brecker with Jack [DeJohnette] and Dave and Pat Metheny. I knew Dave would be solid on those bass notes, whereas a lot of bass players might fill it up too much. I just sat down at my piano, closed my eyes and that’s what came up.”
In all of his endeavors, though, the same premise applies. “I bring patience and a level of internal evaluation to everything I do,” Harland concludes. “That allows me to be more interested in the personal interactions when I play with people. It’s two wholes coming together versus two halves. Seeing all people as one, having that sense of equality and love and togetherness that I like to feel with whomever I’m sharing a moment, I value the person I’m playing with that much more.”