Eric Harland has been a sideman to many revered bandleaders: McCoy Tyner, Charles Lloyd, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Dave Holland, Chris Potter, and Joshua Redman, to name a few. But he will be front and center for “Harlandia,” coming to The Gallery on Dec. 22 and 23. He’s recruited some of his closest colleagues over the years to assist him in realizing his musical vision: Taylor Eigsti and James Francies on piano, Ben Wendel on saxophone, Harish Raghavan on bass, and Love Science Music DJing. In an interview with Jazz Speaks, Harland talked about Tyner, hip hop, and meeting Barack Obama. Excerpts from the conversation are below.
The Jazz Gallery: What does the concept of “Harlandia” represent?
Eric Harland: Harlandia is my world, the way I hear music. It is, in a way, a combination of my worlds from past to present: a little bit of retrospective, current, and future ideas. LoveScience is gonna be interplaying a lot of different music that we’ve worked on, including some that’s very current and hasn’t been released yet. I’m always willing to step on the edge, just to see how people feel about certain things.
Sometimes you just want to hear your world in its entirety. Taylor and Harish are kind of the core of a lot of what I’ve done over the years.The thing I like about both Taylor and James is they’re both very versatile—they can play piano, keyboard, and have an understanding of both instruments in the way they flow in a group setting. And Ben is one of the most versatile sax players on the scene, in how he can play really well in acoustic settings and real nail some big funk band settings.
TJG: You’ve played for so many amazing bandleaders over the years. How does your style as a bandleader compare to those you’ve learned from?
EH: You always learn so much playing as a sideman. You have to be able to react and respond to the needs or desires of the leader you’re playing with. One of the greatest experiences about playing with McCoy is that we never rehearsed. You had to either know the tunes or learn them by the first chorus.
That was a great experience for me because I feel like a lot of musicians tend to over rehearse. They want it to be so perfect so that the presentation is exactly the way they envisioned it. Whereas, I would say the older school of guys like McCoy, Charles Lloyd, Joe Henderson, Benny Carter: these iconic musicians taught me that the spontaneity of the music that brings out something you wouldn’t do repetitively. They were looking to get you to do something different, not for you to overemphasize the same thing you would normally do in any situation. Because then, the music is new for no one.
But then, I do love the current flow of where music is going, how guys are attempting to be perfectionists. If they get their idea to come across as perfect as possible, then there’s no regret as to whether people like or dislike their music.
TJG: So where do you fall on that spectrum?
EH: The middle. I do attempt for the state of perfection. But I’m also open to the fact that whatever happens is perfection. I believe a lot of that does come from having experience as a sideman. Your ultimate job is orchestration: how can I allow this moment to be the best possible moment it can be? The more you practice that, the more it comes across in everything that you do.
TJG: What’s the process of getting to know these musicians?
EH: A lot of guys I play with, I spend a lot of time—I hate to use the word—analyzing them. I do analyze their behavioral patterns. I feel like that gives me a better insight to who they are as person, as a spirit, as an artist, as a musician.
TJG: How was your songwriting or arranging evolved over the last couple years?
EH: I like to sit at the piano and tap out chords that really resonate with my energy in that moment. Once I find something that resonates with my energy, I move onto the next phase, and see if the first phase and second phase go together. Sometimes it’s two separate pieces. I allow it to develop over time.
I enjoy the process of laying down an idea and then walking away from it and coming back and being surprised by what was there before. Because then I have new ears and new information that I’ve been around for the last few months.
TJG: Your music flows in and out of jazz, hip hop, and other musical worlds. What is the hip hop world learning from the jazz world and vice versa?
EH: I think the hip hop world is learning a lot from the jazz world. It’s hard for me to have a good heart to heart conversation with anybody that’s in hip hop. In the jazz idiom, the basic nature of everyone in the genre is about being social, and about being not just vulnerable, but a sense of allowing oneself to be seen. Hip hop guys, personally, there’s always this wall of confusion to just get to know someone.
I’m sure it’s because they come from a more popular genre where so many people are reaching out to them, so it’s harder for them to trust people that they meet. Whereas in jazz, when you know you’re in the community, it’s just natural. No matter how you really feel about the person, your guard is not as high.
On that note, I feel like jazz musicians experience the best part of that relationship because we can pull in from all the information of hip hop minus the agitation maybe a lot of hip hop artists have experienced. A lot of times you listen to what they say and have been through, and it is very graphic. If I lived that type of lifestyle, I probably wouldn’t trust anyone but myself. I do we get the better end of the stick as far as the experience. They, of course, definitely get paid more [laughs].
But the fusion between the two is very beautiful. We have a similar purpose, in that our main goal is to present something that reflects society. I pray that hip hop guys harmonically learn from the idiom of jazz and how it has evolved and take it even a step further. Moving beyond the 8, 16, 32 bar phrases and moving into some angular, different shapes of rhythm can be presented verbally. Once those things really come together, oh man. It’s going to be untouched. I think we’re ready for it, but we don’t know how we’re going to get there.
There’s an evolution of jazz musicians learning how to concentrate the amount of information that comes out at one particular time. Every moment, we’re presenting so much information improvisationally, that sometimes it’s hard for the listener to follow. I think what we’re learning from hip hop guys is riffs and phrasing: is that a lot of times, less is not necessarily more, but appreciated.
TJG: Are there any musicians on either side of jazz/hip hop divide you think are taking the fusion of the genres forward?
EH: I definitely like Kendrick Lamar. I’m always a big fan of Busta Rhymes: he’s one of my favorites still to this day. I like Q-Tip. I like guys that are unique. I also like guys who are willing to try something different. I know Q-Tip has had guys come to his house, and they worked out different chords and different information musically and verbally. Case in point: Q-Tip and Kurt Rosenwinkel. They spent a lot of time together and threw around a lot of different ideas. I would like to see those two guys do more. Because Kurt is just crazy enough, and Q-Tip can understand that type of crazy, but is sane enough that it works.
I believe Kendrick Lamar is still young enough and ready to tread that zone. He’s part of a family of jazz musicians. That family, I knew those guys: Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington, the whole LA scene. I remember them—they all studied under Billy Higgins at World Stage. So they learned from one of the most pioneering jazz icons that was one of the greatest jazz orchestrators of all time. He had a way of transforming the music from the drumset. If those guys were spending that much time with him—and we know how much of a genuine soul Billy Higgins is—for Kendrick Lamar to grow up in that environment, no wonder why he’s such an amazing person, and an amazing, aware, conscious rapper taking liberties with the music to move it into a different direction. So those are the top three I’d like to work with.
TJG: You met Barack Obama this year. How did that happen?
EH: My best friend Robert Mailer Anderson and his wife Nicola Miner Anderson were invited to the State Dinner to honor Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. It was a magical experience meeting the Obama’s and sharing a moment with so many great celebrities.
I think the most engaging part was when I met Michelle. Needless to say, I was probably one of three black people in the room. She reminded me of all my aunts and my grandmother: every black female I knew in my family that just had genuine love and embrace. You felt like the world stopped when you met her. She had that way of making you feel right at home. And I met Obama and the two girls at the same time and it was just perfect. It felt very very natural. I could go on and on. But it was one of those experiences: anyone who’s been in the presence of the Obamas… it’s something.
TJG: Having met him, and drawing from the current political climate, do you think your music is going to be political going forward?
EH: Yes. I’m open for it. We’re in a time when it’s needed.
I feel like we can find harmony within either other, find a way to do what we’ve always wanted to do: to coexist, to get rid of a lot of the things we strongly disagree with: killing people, disgracing other genders and belief systems, racial profiles, social profiles. There has to be a way for those who need to feel important to gain that level of importance without the disgrace of something else in the process.
For me, compositionally, my music is focused on that degree. How can I take various forms of music, various forms of spoken word, and ideas and bring them to the “now,” so people can see how all these things come together? How all these things have a sense of oneness, even though we experience them separately? That’s the liberation that society is looking for: that variety is accepted. We have to learn to trust each other more and not be afraid to be vulnerable to one another.
TJG: Thank you. Do you have anything else exciting coming up?
EH: My brand new recording studio just opened in the city. Financially, it’s so hard to book studio time, and you always feel pressured with studio time to allow something to evolve. Now I have two other partners. We have this great place in Chelsea. It’s for us to just take the reins off and allow music to be free. I’m excited to see what’s going to happen.
Eric Harland’s Harlandia comes to The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, December 22nd, and Friday, December 23rd, 2016. Mr. Harland, drums, will be joined by Taylor Eigsti (December 22) and James Francies (December 23) on keyboards, Harish Raghavan on bass, and Ben Wendel on woodwinds. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night, with a DJ set in between. $25 general admission ($15 for members) for each set, $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.