Saturday, February 19, 2011

Eric Harland: Circle in the Round

The sublime drummer Eric Harland brought a band into Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center in Saratoga Springs New York on Feb. 17 and put on a show that potentially will rank among the region’s best for 2011 by the time December rolls around. The musicians --Taylor Eigsti, piano; Chris Potter, sax; Julian Lage, guitar; Harish Raghavan, bass -- are all part of New York City’s vibrant jazz scene, based in Brooklyn these days.

All but Raghavan are leaders in their own right, and Harish can be found playing with Kurt Elling, Kendrick Scott’s Oracle and any number of important gigs. Potter is one of the finest saxophonists out there. It was first performance with the group (Walter Smith can usually be found blowing with this band).

The music began by creeping in slowly, then swirled and twisted … and delighted. Performed like a suite. The fantastic, highly influential, pianist Jason Moran, a colleague of Harland’s from Houston, might have indirectly had some effect on this.

[Photo: Eric Harland band, Skidmore College]

“My music is a lot about segues,” Harland told me a couple weeks before the show. “It’s less about the composition itself. It’s about having a composition that allows the members of the band to fully be in the moment. I never liked having to be so caught up in a tune that I couldn’t live in the moment. … We have a thing. Me and Jason Moran say it all the time: circular. It means that everything rotates around you like the Earth. And the Earth goes around the sun. The same things happens between the band and the audience. Even within the band. What you give kind of comes back around and keeps moving around. I always felt like if the musicians on stage are too caught up in the music, what they’re doing on stage, they’re not really paying attention to the moment. Or the direction the music can take. As well as what the people in the audience will feel. Something kind of gets lost a little bit.”

Listening to the artistry of this band, those words came back to me. He succeeded in bringing about that concept.

It also called to mind a recent conversation with the renowned young trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Moran produced Akinmusire’s very good new album that doesn’t come out until April.) A little while after acknowledging Moran as a major influence, he talked about music thusly: “I believe that composition--music in general--shouldn’t be exact. It shouldn’t be straight up and down. It should be a circle. That’s the way nature is. When you look at a tree, it doesn’t go click-click-click. It sways around. I try to capture that in my music.”

Harland’s show was superb. The music was seamless. It churned and twirled and was driven by Harland’s insistent and wide-ranging drumming, Raghavan’s muscular bass chops and even Eigsti playing percussive piano when not flowing up and down the keyboard. Potter would take the lead voice, blowing within the composition and improvising around. He showed his imagination and monster chops. The music would then slide to Lage, who then got the chance to add his colors. He was fiery, playing quicksilver runs over the wall of sound that were some of the most Methenyesque I’ve heard from the young guitarist. Visible was what Gary Burton saw in Lage a decade or so ago upon taking him under his wing.

Upon the completion of his statement, Eigsti would glides into the fray with both precision and polish. His energy matched the passion of his cohorts at all times. Excellent stuff. By the time the first set came to a close they were smiling, the smile of that satisfaction that comes over those who make the art. In this case--jazz--made on the spot.

Harland, who seems to play with everyone under the sun, has really got something here.

“I want to try something and I want to share with everyone who’s in this room right now. Not just allowing the music, the composition, take precedence and be something more important than the audience,” he said.

The next day, he and Raghavan went into the studio to do a trio record of John Nazarenko’s, an Albany, NY, area pianist who also teaches at Skidmore.

Harland praised Skidmore and its music program. The college not only gives young musicians a chance to learn, but they bring in good jazz musicians for performances, and also instruction. “I wish more people would support the arts,“ said the drummer. “So an artist doesn’t feel like they have to sell themselves … The true meaning of being an artist is being a artist. Being able to allow your mind to search into realms … that spiritual space. It’s been a thing throughout history that the artist has been able to breathe that energy back into the room to remind everyone this is who we are, where we come from. This is how we feel.”

He said it’s a lot harder for the artist today. “The visibility of the artist himself has been lost. They’re not able to deliver that anymore. It’s become the same old overly produced… it doesn’t offer anything. If it’s not overly produced, it’s not even thought out. The guys themselves on stage are frustrated. They’re not even in the zone, as artists, to feel free enough to allow themselves. They’re like, ‘I’ve got to do this, because if I don’t do this I won’t get enough gigs.’ It’s tricky.”

Alas. But Harland certainly breaks all that shit with this band. Creativity reigns. And his drumming is terrific, as so many band leaders know. He’s always busy playing with someone -- Charles Lloyd, Josh Redman, on and on.

“I feel like the drums was just a way in. I like to think of myself as a human being first. … My greatest love is life. I have a real love for life and spirituality. Oneness. Everything that encompasses. It doesn’t necessarily mean these things are religious or anything like that. From my perspective, it’s more about just being there. Paying attention to it. Being conscious of it. I feel like playing the drums gave me an avenue for people who wanted to listen. Most people are willing to listen, you have the opportunity to say something. I’m always grateful that I’m a drummer. It’s given me the opportunity to move forward into the things I really want to do. Which is to really reach people on different levels … I think you can go on and keep trying things. It’s so vast. There’s so many things you can do.”

He’s doing them, alright.

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