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Eric Harland: Voyager Live By Night

John Kelman By

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In the space of a few short years, he's become drummer of choice for icons like saxophonist Charles Lloyd and bassist Dave Holland, established next-generationers including trumpeter Terence Blanchard and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, and young up-and-comers such as pianists Taylor Eigsti and Aaron Parks. Behind all of them—and as a member of the SFJAZZ Collective since 2005—Eric Harland has proven capable of everything from incendiary firepower to subtle shadings.

Some artists don't wait long enough before donning the leader's cap and releasing an album under their own name, but with his career now well into its second decade, and on the strength of Voyager Live By Night, it's possible that Harland has actually been overly conservative in waiting this long. With a group that's essentially Taylor Eigsti's quartet from Daylight at Midnight (Concord, 2010), plus the added tenor power of saxophonist Walter Smith III, Harland has delivered an album leaning heavy on the firepower, with ample room for solo explorations, while proving the drummer to be a composer still in the ascendance, but absolutely ready to step into the limelight.

Recorded live over four days in 2008, Voyager's group of young leaders includes, in addition to Eigsti, guitarist Julian Lage, who's been a pro since his teens, with vibraphonist Gary Burton, and whose own debut, Sounding Point (EmArcy, 2009) was an eclectic set reflecting maturity beyond his years. Here, unsaddled with his own leader's mantle, Lage gets to open up and really play, with controlled fervor and a warm tone which crosses Jim Hall and Pat Metheny.

It doesn't hurt that some of Harland's best tunes are barnstormers, like the modal workout "Treachery," which opens the set for the same reason that Holland selected it to kick off The Monterey Quartet: Live at the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival (Monterey Jazz, 2009)—it's just that hot. Here, Lage and Smith engage in some accelerating interplay, supported by Eigsti's prodding chordal support, bassist Harish Raghavan's unshakable anchor (sometimes disposed towards long, tension-building ostinatos)—and, of course, Harland's relentless but never excessive combination of forward motion and empathic, polyrhythmic push-and-pull. Eigsti's solo, later in the tune, is a marvelous combination of potent McCoy Tyner-isms and virtuosic Eigsti-isms, before dissolving into one of two "Intermezzos"—solos that Harland uses to link his original material into a continuous, 46-minute suite that comprises over half of Voyager's 78-minute running time.

It's not all about high energy and playing that, while matching the demands of Harland's music—also including a buoyant version of Harland's optimistic "Development," from SFJAZZ Collective's Live 2005 (SFJAZZ, 2005)—embodies a spirited compositional focus to soloing and five sets of wide-open ears. As a writer, Harland goes beyond the mere head-solo-head that would almost have been enough for a group of players this strong, instead demonstrating, at times, a near-episodic approach that still encourages the players to create an on-the-fly sense of composition. The result is music as memorable for its constructs as it is for its opportunities.

"Eclipse" slows the pace down mid-set, with Lage demonstrating especially strong time at a slower tempo, and then segueing to another well-structured "Intermezzo" solo from Harland, before leading to the set's closers and only non-Harland compositions: a look at the Sam Rivers' rarely covered "Cyclic Episode," from one of the saxophonist's more centrist efforts, Fuschia Swing Song (Blue Note, 1964); and Eigsti's "Get Your Hopes Up," from his 2006 major label debut, Lucky To Be Me (Concord), here expanded to nearly four times its original length and closing the set on a high volume, high octane high note.

Every one of the musicians is a vital part of a new, modern mainstream. Collectively, Harland's group on Voyager Live By Night plays with the kind of commitment, prowess and plain good taste that enriches the album with countless "wish you were here" moments; Hopefully it won't have to be just a wish, if the album can successfully spread the word about a drummer who, impressing almost everyone who encounters his playing, has finally made the leap to composer and bandleader with the same exhilarating balance of aplomb and humility that's imbued his rapidly growing work as a sideman.

Track Listing: Treachery; Intermezzo 1; Turn Signal; Voyager; Intermezzo 2; Development; Eclipse; Intermezzo 3; Cyclic Episode; Get Your Hopes Up Part 1; Get Your Hopes Up Part 2; Get Your Hopes Up Part 3; Get Your Hopes Up Part 4.

Personnel: Eric Harland: drums; Walter Smith III: tenor saxophone; Julian Lage: guitars; Taylor Eigsti: piano; Harish Raghavan: bass.

Title: Voyager Live By Night | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Space Time Records

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