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Eric Harland: Searching the Patterns in Life

John Patten By

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Drummer Eric Harland is between gigs, just back from a dates and clinics in Japan and getting ready to head to Europe. He's got new recordings out with several bands— including the Charles Lloyd, The Monterey Quartet with Dave Holland and Jason Moran—and a handful of compositions to get recorded with his own group.

But then, in a way, this was foretold by an eight year-old Harland to his mother.



"She said I told her I would travel the world, meet a lot of girls and play music," he laughs. "The funny thing is, I would say that has been my life for the last few years (except for the girls). It's all be fun; it's all been good.

"I will say that as a kid, I really had a focus about it," Harland adds. "I can't say I put things on the wall that said, 'Have a great day—you're going to be a great musician.' I just took it a day at a time, I just knew I loved music and I just wanted to be the best I could be at whatever I was doing. And all of a sudden, I woke up and it was happening."

That summary glosses over a few bumps along the way for Harland. Though he was a drumming prodigy as a teenager in Houston, Texas at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where Wynton Marsalis encouraged him to continue his education in New York in 1993, after hearing him play. Harland followed the advice, receiving a full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music.

His special citation from the International Association of Jazz Educators for Outstanding Musicianship in 1994 further raised his visibility, making his childhood prediction look very prescient.

"Starting off, I was really fortunate to have a really, really good private drum instructor [Craig Green], who kind of got me between five and eight," Harland says. "And I went to this performing arts middle school and he was the instructor there.

"After that, he just kind of gave me guidance and in high school, it was kind of words of wisdom," he adds. "But he's always been a really, really good, really patient, really great instructor. He's very different, I would say, than any instructor I've come in contact with since then."

Harland notes Green's methods relied on cultivating his students' own skills as much as inculcating specific technical chops.

"But he's very patient," Harland says. "He doesn't have you do basic patterns, he just kind of patiently guides you so you can learn to do it correctly. It just really helped.

"If anyone doubts the skills he's taught ... you think about all the great drummers that have come out of Houston—you got Chris Dave, you got Kendrick Scott, you got Jamal Williams," Harland continues. "We all come from Mr. Green. It just shows what a phenomenal teacher he is—and if you thought it was just because of drums, his daughter happens to be a really, really tremendously excellent violinist.

"So, it just shows his teaching skills, his method of teaching actually works," Harland explains. "He is such a simple guy, he doesn't want anything, he just loves music, he loves the drums. He loves working with people."

After landing in Manhattan, Harland's professional career started out strongly but his first taste of independence led to a downfall.

"When I got to New York, and of course, as a young guy coming from Houston to New York, I kind of went crazy and I had a great time, I did everything I could do," Harland concludes. "And that was great. I didn't have any issues with what I was doing—but my mom did! My mom was, like, 'this isn't right.'"

Harland explains that his mother, firmly entrenched in the Baptist Church, would occasionally rebuke him, warning him that God was watching him.

"And that that kind of scared me when bad things started to happen," he says. "At first, good things were happening and then at a certain point bad things started to happen."

One of the most important things happening to Harland personally was a tremendous loss of weight. As a teenager in Houston, Harland was overweight and often left out of social circles in high school. During his first years in New York, he began losing weight, dropping from 380 pounds down to 160.

"I went through a point of being kind of malnourished, and when you're malnourished, your blood sugar is low and your body is very sensitive to everything," Harland explains. "I remember being at my wits end, coming back home after this one show in Milwaukee, and I passed out because I hadn't eaten.

"And my mom had to come get me from Milwaukee and she is like drama queen," he adds. "She thought on the plane, that I had died and that she prayed and I came back to life, and I was just like, 'Wow, OK.' So I got home and she said I got to give my life to Christ, blah-blah-blah, so I did it."

"And so I didn't really know what to think, and so at that particular time, that was the only kind of concrete thing that really spoke to me was Christianity, religion," concludes Harland.

So Harland gave up the jazz life, returned to Houston and enrolled in the Houston Baptist University College of Biblical Studies and became an ordained minister.

From left: Zakir Hussein, Charles Lloyd, Eric Harland

"So I gave my life over the Christ, and I went to church and I kind of got renewed through that and it really helped me," he s.ays "Everything made sense and I just told myself, 'I can get onboard with this.'

"I began to preach the Gospel of Christ, I learned a lot about the Bible, everything about the Bible made sense, I started understanding the history of the Bible and I was like, 'This is really great,'" explains Harland.

But instead of being the end of his spiritual searching, Harland's studies and ordination fueled an ongoing journey he's still exploring.

"I'm cool with who I am and what I am—and that's the key," he says. "It's not about following a rule book or someone else's rules—I've kind of come up with my own. Everything has a cause and effect. For me, it just seems to be evolution."

That evolution led him back to the drum kit. The matured Harland returned to New York and built a reputation as a solid and inventive drummer on a series of studio sessions. After recording on saxophonist Greg Tardy's appropriately named Serendipity(Universal, 1998), Harland appeared on pianist Aaron Goldberg's Turning Point (J Curve, 1999) and trumpeter Terence Blanchard's Wandering Moon (Sony Classical, 2000).

Since then, it's been a torrent of dates and tours, working with Kenny Garrett, Greg Osby, McCoy Tyner, Joshua Redman, Stefon Harris, Dave Holland and others. He's a member of the SFJAZZ Collective (San Francisco Jazz Collective, was tapped for the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival quartet, and has been touring with Charles Lloyd.

And in 2006, he toured with Lloyd and Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain, stretching Harland's musical chops further. The concerts included improvisations moving Harland from behind the drums to piano and keyboards, and to create rhythms matching the elements of Hussain's playing.

Listening to the trio's live recording, Sangam (ECM, 2006), Harland's inventive fills and melodic playing loom large. He said he thought about how to work within the shifting rhythmic patterns found in Asian drumming.

"I remember riding around in Pakistan with this student, and I was just tapping my hands, you know, and he said, 'You're playing sevens—do you often play sevens,'" Harland says, referring to the repetition of patterns in a rhythmic cycle. "And I was hadn't even thought about it, and then I realized that, yeah, I was."

"You know, in India, they have this involved and formal system of rhythms they use, and some are sevens, some are 12s. But they grow up using them and it becomes second nature to them, so they just think like that," he explains.

Harland also says that the experience was an eye-opener that further expanded his appreciation of drumming and rhythms.

"I pretty much learned from everybody, that's the way I like to look at," he says, noting that he eschews formalized training, finding it off-putting and stilted.

"I've watched how they do clinics and things and every body gets so wired about things—it's like, 'You gotta do this' and 'You gotta do that,'" Harland says. "I don't respect the teacher who stick to books and doesn't pay attention to the students that they have in class.

"Now I understand for a lot of kids, you have to have a system," he adds. "It makes sense but at the same time, there has to be a way to develop a system that you don't have to try to keep this order because something for the sake of order you lose this organic feel to it."

At this point in his spiritual journey, staying in the musical moment, keeping it real, is vital to Harland. He's been experimenting with compositional techniques in search of finding the most creative, in-the-moment moments for his music.

"I think about the techniques; I think about the chords; I think about the form, about the format; about the structure—but at the same time, sometimes, I try to just try to shape a tune around just a melodic line," says Harland. "And then this new thing, because of the technology we have, I've started to take a line and a bunch of times, just writing a bunch of random notes on a score and seeing what it sounds like. You know, writing random rhythms at the same time. And then you come up with very open, unique sound—it gives a different point of reference.

"And then you allow your artistic creativeness to really come to the forefront because you're really hearing something, you hear something that hasn't been done," he adds. "What I do then at that point, is to adjust the notes or the rhythms accordingly to try to find a tonal center or a key—try to find a melody in the chaos.

"That's another creative tool that I'm sure tons of people use—they don't talk about it much, but they have to because it's so great, why wouldn't anyone?," says Harland . "It's like you write a bunch of dots on the wall, then what you do is bring out the ruler and start connecting them so then people tend to look at them and go 'Wow, you really had a different approach on the placement.'

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