Q&A with Eric Harland: ‘Everything’s Accessible’

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Drummer Eric Harland leads Voyager and plays in a handful of other ensembles.

(Photo: Courtesy of Artist)

It’s been said that clothes make the man. In the case of in-demand drummer and bandleader Eric Harland, sartorial choices also reflect the gig.

Backstage at the SFJAZZ Center, between a recent Sunday matinee and the final of four performances with Joey Alexander, Harland explains that he’s swinging home to the East Coast briefly en route to Europe—in part to switch wardrobes. For his dates with the 14-year-old piano phenom, he says he packed a couple of dress coats. He’ll sport something more stylish and casual for his Continental dates as a member of saxophonist Chris Potter’s new electronic-oriented trio, which also includes keyboardist Craig Taborn.

Last year, Harland also played in bassist Dave Holland’s quartet along with Potter and guitarist Kevin Eubanks; saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s band, The Marvels (which includes bassist Reuben Rogers, who also recently was in San Francisco with Alexander); and bass maverick Les Claypool.

Harland, a Houston native, discussed his busy year and plans for 2018, including the re-emergence of his Voyager band with guitarist Julian Lage, saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Taylor Eigsti and double bassist Harish Raghavan.

It’s been great to hear you and Reuben together again, playing with Joey. How has that been?

He has a great command of the instrument, like he’s able to convey the ideas that he interprets—the things that he’s grown to understand at his young age. I feel like that’s a beautiful thing.

Joey has various styles, so you can tell he’s checked out loads of different piano players. So, I appreciate that about him as well—that he’s continuing to grow and evolve. He’s very humble and has a very level head and a very old soul.

And then you’ll head overseas for a very different musical setting.

I love this new Potter project. Chris Potter has this new electronic trio project. Chris even has little mini-keyboards up there and all these sounds and samples, so it’s really super-electronica. And the music is great.

But it’s three different versions, because there’s also one with me and James Francies on keyboards. Then there’s the version where it’s me, Chris and Reuben playing bass guitar, electric bass.

Oh, I should say four. [Bassist] Linley Marthe from Joe Zawinul Syndicate has done it, too. So, those are kind of the four different versions, and Chris and I are the pillars.

And you’ve also been playing with James?

James is such a virtuoso. He can play key bass and piano and all these different keyboards and vocoder. He’s like a one-man machine over there, just going for it.

It leaves a lot of room for me to just really play out—a lot of room for both of us. We’re both kind of busy players, which makes it nice because there’s nothing to try to hold us to one idea, even though we both can do it.

Taylor and Walter were both in town recently with the Joe Sanders Quartet and Jason Moran’s Big Bandwagon, respectively, and both were excited about the new Voyager album.

We recorded in September. Everybody contributed great material to the album, and it sounds amazing. We’re in the final stages of trying to figure out what’s going to actually make the album. It’s so much good music that I don’t want to overload people with all of that.

Do you have a release date in mind?

I’m thinking February. I wanted to release it in secret this [November]—throw it out there without any kind of notification and just let it hit the scene. It’s an advantage of having my own label [GSI Records] now: I can choose when.

But I think February’s going to be a good time, because it’ll give us a couple of months to talk to some radio stations about it and get some publicity going. That way it comes out, and it has a nice kind of a steamrolling aspect to it. And also in February, we’re doing the Kennedy Center.

Is there a tour planned for the core quintet?

Maybe in April; we’ll see what happens. Everyone’s schedule is so busy. It makes it hard to get everybody.

That’s the thing with that band: I don’t want to have to sub. The sub thing takes away from the richness that it is, so I’m patient.

And will you be touring with Dave Holland again?

We’re going to pick back up with Aziza next year with [guitarist] Lionel [Loueke], and Chris. We’re going to do a tour in the fall.

Everybody loves Dave. And one thing I love about Dave is that he always likes to switch things up. Dave is a free spirit. He’s been in a trio with Kevin and [drummer] Obed [Calvaire]. He keeps it fresh, man. Like I tell cats: You can’t get too attached to anything.

I’ve noticed that your Instagram account has accumulated quite a following. What’s your secret?

Instagram is easy; I feel fortunate. A lot of people just happen to know a lot about me, and I’m in a lot of different publications. I feel like having all of that notoriety—people just wanting to pay attention.

And I love social media. I love being able to just express myself, and I’m glad that people are willing to listen—or at least click “like.”

Are there any specific ways you approach it?

I don’t take it too seriously. You might see me just pose, like I’m going outside, or I’m just listening to some music or I’m at a soundcheck. Maybe I’m giving you a preview of a new song or something I’m working on.

It’s a good space to feel people out and just see how they respond to things and also just how they respond to different things; also, just to express yourself on a larger scale.

Everything’s accessible now, and that’s a wonderful thing. Can you imagine if Instagram was a thing when the Coltrane quartet was around? DB



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August 2019
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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