The whole kit and caboodle

Boston Globe, August 5, 2011

Any decent investigation of the jazz scene is likely to yield these near-conclusive findings: First, Eric Harland is everywhere. Second, Eric Harland can do anything.

Evidence? Just look at his schedule for the next few days. At the Newport Jazz Festival this weekend, Harland, a 34-year-old drummer with an absurdly lavish body of work, appears in three groups with utterly different sensibilities.

One is Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s group, Triveni. There’s James Farm, an eclectic song-driven quartet with Joshua Redman on sax, Aaron Parks on piano, and Matt Penman on bass. And there’s Sangam, the pure improvisation trio that joins Harland with two living legends: saxophonist-flautist Charles Lloyd and Zakir Hussain, India’s tabla master.

Then next Thursday Harland is at Regattabar with his own quintet, an intense group with a swirling, searching sound that leaves many song conventions behind. His band has been a bit of a side project for Harland, busy as he’s been working with the likes of Lloyd, McCoy Tyner, Dave Holland, and Terence Blanchard; the SFJAZZ collective; his contemporaries Jason Moran, Stefon Harris, Aaron Goldberg, and many others.

If Harland is in such demand, it’s because his skill, versatility, and personality have sent his fellow musicians searching for superlatives.

“There aren’t many things he can’t do,” says pianist and MacArthur Fellow Moran, who has known Harland since high school in Houston. “He’s the textbook case of the new jazz drummer who plays funk, groove, straight-ahead, Motown. Eric likes getting around the drum kit just as much as he likes getting around different styles of music.”

Pianist Taylor Eigsti, who plays with Harland in both his own and Harland’s group, takes it further. “There’s no one else in the world who can play what he plays,” Eigsti says. “He’s so good that you just have to laugh.” And Lloyd has said that Harland was sent to him by the spirit of his late friend and collaborator, the great drummer Billy Higgins.

As for Harland himself, he fields all this attention with a kind of gracious simplicity.

“All that has just been multiple blessings stacked on top of each other,” he says on the phone from his home in rural Pennsylvania. “But even before, when I came to New York, all I wanted to do was play. I didn’t think about whether someone wanted to hire me. I had no conception that everything that has happened would happen.”

Solidarity, adversity, and revelation all play a part in Harland’s ascent to the jazz summit. Raised in a musical family, he attended the Houston arts high school that produced pop star Beyonce – plus a thick jazz cohort including Moran, guitarist Mike Moreno, and drummers Chris Dave, Kendrick Scott, and Jamire Williams.

Arriving in New York in the mid-’90s, the Houstonians looked out for one another. They also brought a sound, Harland says.

“A lot of it comes from the church and from characteristics of the South – a lot of earth-based music,” he says. “We have the intellect to write and conceptualize music, but we were taught in a grounded way just to hear music.”

In finding his own sound, both as composer and in the way he plays the totality of the drum set, Harland partly credits those roots.

“You listen to gospel music, and it has this uplifting quality,” he says. “Then I was influenced by classical music, because of the different shapes and colors; and I like the intensity of Coltrane’s music. And that’s a great starting point.”

But Harland had personal obstacles to overcome. As a teen he was very overweight, and though he found refuge in music, his size hurt his self-esteem. “All I ever wanted was to be accepted by everybody,” he says. “I felt like people didn’t love me when I was fat.”

His journey involved massive weight loss – seeing him now, you would have no idea – but also an insight: “You don’t have to be so-called picture perfect to be embraced in the world.”

Along the way, he formed an interest in theology that almost overrode his music career. After a short stint at the Manhattan School of Music he returned to Houston and studied for the ministry. “I was trying to get a better understanding of my relationship to the universe,” he says.

Though he was ordained, music proved the higher vocation. A call from saxophonist Greg Osby brought him back out on tour; another call, from Betty Carter, cemented his move back to New York. An invitation from Tyner followed, and later one from Lloyd.

From each of the projects he is showcasing this week, Harland takes a different kind of satisfaction. Sangam, with Lloyd and Hussain, was as risky a venture as he has ever done, he says. He wasn’t sure how his drumming would mesh with the tabla against just one melodic instrument. And at Lloyd’s insistence, Sangam performed and recorded the first time with no rehearsals, no music, and no plan.

“And it came out to be the most beautiful thing,” Harland says. “It taught us something about the wisdom and trust of Charles in the universe, as well as what can happen if you just let it be.”

James Farm, meanwhile, is a completely different endeavor. Harland likens its spirit to that of a rock band. “We’re just some hip young guys trying to do something because we like each other, almost like you see these boy bands pop up, jamming in a garage.” He says they try to play songs with “a certain amount of epicness packed into five or six minutes.”

His own band, however, is a renewed priority, Harland says. “I’m looking forward in the next few years to being able to really focus on it. And to see what happens, kind of allow my mind to be open to new ideas.”

It’s unlikely Harland has ever been truly short of ideas. That’s why his old friend Moran welcomes this new direction.

“He definitely has strong ideas about how to present music,” Moran says. “He has worked with some of the best bandleaders in the business, so his perspective on how to lead a band is a valuable one. But he won’t know how valuable until he has to do it over and over again. There is a bright, bright future ahead.”