The Texas native has played on hundreds of albums, recorded multiple soundtracks, performed with jazz royalty, and led his own incendiary projects. He’s accomplished all of this by hyper-analyzing the most basic of musical ideas, and applying what he’s learned to some of the most exploratory music of our time. Come along as we go deep with a true modern visionary.

Eric Harland possesses an exceedingly high level of technique, and has had invaluable live and studio experiences. But the trait that perhaps best exemplifies his art is flexibility. How else to explain a discography that crisscrosses genres, rhythms, and approaches so boldly and effectively?

Harland’s performances on highly lauded recordings like Stefon Harris’s Black Action Figure, Terence Blanchard’s Let’s Get Lost and Wandering Moon, Ravi Coltrane’s From the Round Box, Dave Holland’s Pass It On and Prism, McCoy Tyner’s Land of Giants, and Charles Lloyd’s I Long to See You and Passin’ Thru have been praised throughout the jazz community. You can also cut to the here and now with any of Harland’s solo albums under the name Voyager: Live by Night (2010), Vipassana (2014), and 13th Floor (2018, on his own GSI label), and find equal enthusiasm for his gifts.

Among Harland’s most satisfying settings is his Voyager group, which features tenor player Walter Smith III, guitarist Julian Lage, pianist Taylor Eigsti, and bassist Harish Raghavan supporting his wide-ranging compositions. The group’s latest, 13th Floor, dazzles with high-velocity performances. “Fast 5” is built atop layers of kinetic, intertwining rhythms that scorch the senses like the Le Mans race set to music. Harland strikes everything in sight here, within a sizzling pocket that is equal parts drum solo and impervious groove. “Contrast” begins with a semi-recognizable ride cymbal beat, leavened by Eigsti’s piano chords; Harland nails snare drum jabs like machine gun fire, solos flying while he maintains a jazz pulse. “Dark Horse” is all blistering snare drum accents as gentle chords keep the song earthbound. The title track is no less heated, its ominous melody powered with nervous rhythms, like a funeral march disturbed by a standup comedian.

And then there’s his recent album on the Newvelle Records label, Supa Nova. A true solo drumming album, Supa Nova finds Harland accompanying himself with electronics that create various moods over which he blazes. Harland imbues “Leaving” with riotous breakbeats, issues scattershot rudimental flurries and drum-and-bass ideas in “Stratum,” plows through the interstellar sludge in “The Challenger (1986),” creates a hypnotic African melody-infused world in “Mbalax,” and goes mad over the chirping electronic sounds of “D.A.R.E.”

An ordained minister, Harland comes from a spiritual Houston, Texas, family. After graduating from the famed High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, he landed a full scholarship to Manhattan School of Music, where he met many of the musicians who would help launch his career.

Currently recording out of his GSI studios on the label of the same name, Harland can also be heard on forthcoming albums by pianists Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Taylor Eigsti; tabla great Zakir Hussain and sitarist Pandit Niladri Kumar; pianist Jason Moran and keyboardist James Francies; tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and keyboardist BIGYUKI; and another tenor great, Chris Potter, with keyboardist James Francies.

Beyond Rudiments

MD: Your drumming projects a sense of calm. Even when playing intricate rhythms, you’re relaxed. And like the great multidirectional jazz drummers Rashid Ali and Jack DeJohnette, you place the pulse over the entire kit, not only on the cymbal. Is your style based in the multidirectional approach?

Eric: Exactly. That’s always been a critical point for me, to be all-inclusive on the set. It wasn’t preplanned. It always felt natural. Like when I work with students, I sometimes feel the biggest problem is those who have no relationship with the instrument. If you don’t have a relationship with the instrument, you’re not going to have anything to say. A relationship as in understanding physically how their body relates to the drumset.

MD: Beyond rudiments?

Eric: Yes. Just the basics, the way that you sit at the drums, for example. How you understand the sound of the cymbal. That’s always been my problem with learning drumming from books. Books represent a very standard, observational approach to the instrument. Like, you have cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, and toms. Now here are some patterns that you can play in between them to create a sound. That’s what you’re supposed to get from a book. But when I watch the greats of our instrument, you can tell by the “sonicness” of their sound that instead of always thinking about volume, they think velocity. In the studio world, velocity is where volume meets compression.

MD: Velocity, as in speed?

Eric: I understand velocity as pace, the rate of motion. So when you think about it, pacing introduces your communication through the instrument. If you haven’t had enough experience relating to the instrument, then it will be hard to convey your own biological rhythm through the instrument.

MD: How can drummers understand that?

Eric: You have to go back to basics. Coming up, I’d sit at the drumset and use all four limbs to play simple quarter notes and simple 8th notes or, if possible, 16th notes, develop that and synchronize those notes. I wanted to develop muscle memory so that my body could understand everything simultaneously, so my left hand could understand what my right hand was doing, and my right hand and my left hand could understand what my right foot and my left foot were doing. It was about the communication between the limbs so I could ultimately communicate eff ectively.

MD: You wanted to achieve the same velocity on all four limbs?

Eric: The velocity was more about being able to convey the pace I wanted. When you see me play, my mind is going a hundred miles a minute, but I remain calm. It comes across that way because I’ve spent time sitting at the instrument doing these basic synchronizing patterns, so that my muscle memory is consolidated. The more you practice, the more your body can feel comfortable to regurgitate whatever you’ve practiced.

The biggest challenge to learning something is that the brain and the muscles have to be on the same page. Drummers practice so much, and often while sleeping is when the marriage between the muscle and the brain occurs. It’s the moment when consciousness is born. In a relaxed state the body can work on things that it needs to work on without being present for something else.

To Speak, to Drum

MD: Give us an idea of some of those things that you would practice.

Eric: First is the idea of synchronizing everything, playing quarter notes, 8th notes, 16th notes, on all limbs simultaneously. Other things would be trying different patterns on different limbs and seeing where the marriage between the two falls. What I was doing was introducing these concepts, the marriage of the brain and the muscles and whatever they have to do to figure that out. The brain is like a tape machine or a recorder; it does the work for you.

I might try something in seven. Even though I’m counting seven, it never felt natural per se. I’m counting 1 2 3 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 1 2 3 4, and trying things on the drumset. Even though I understand and can mimic the patterns with three and four or introduce different textures, I would also spend time playing completely free. And drilling home all these buried rhythmic patterns into my mind. I was hearing two worlds at once, and I never knew if I was going to be able to [unify them], it happened on its own. You need the muscles to be loose within a structure, yet still be solid and precise. All that was happening at once.

MD: How did that occur?

Eric: I had these pinnacle moments where I began to understand. Then I took it a step further. If I can establish a point where I can play free within the structure, then a muse comes in and you get these other points of awareness. It’s all about evolution and growth. Then the communication aspect hit me and I realized, that’s all that speech is. When you’re speaking to someone, if you listen to the rhythm of the conversation, it’s a structured rhythm, but you’re able to use it at different times because of one aspect: you have to breathe. You have this breathing element that’s occurring as you’re speaking. That goes back to the velocity of your own pace and your natural conversation. That’s your personal birth rate that you’ve learned since you were a child, and you’ve developed words and synthesis based on things that you felt attracted to, or things you wanted to adopt. That brought the drums to a deeper level of communication for me. “Why don’t I practice playing what I speak, and then mimic that with my limbs, playing the patterns that I use when conversing with someone?”

MD: You mimicked your own speech in your drumming?

Eric: Exactly.

MD: Did you do this for twenty minutes, twenty hours?

Eric: I don’t believe in exhausting yourself when it comes to conceptual ideas, because a concept is not something that you’re going to master in a day. It takes time to develop. Say you’re trying to build speed and strength—that’s the workout aspect of the drums. If I want to play faster around the kit, I would be on the drums in two-hour increments. Growing up, my friends and I would push our bodies to their maximum resistance. We’d do as many pushups as possible, to where our arms couldn’t move, and then we tried to see how fast we could play the drums. Our bodies had to figure that out. In the meantime, we’re still practicing and getting stronger. You get to the point where you don’t get tired. This also involves the breathing aspect and learning how to play in a way that is a natural form of communication. I rarely get tired, because my body is speaking in its normal rhythm.

MD: How do you incorporate breathing with drumming?

Eric: It’s just the natural respiratory response of your body. Just paying attention to the rhythm that we naturally use when talking. And that introduced two things [to me]: it made me aware that it’s okay to appreciate the space in between notes. And I learned more about my body and how breathing is necessary. It’s not any deeper than that.

MD: Where did you learn this?

Eric: You go through periods when certain things click and make sense. While playing with saxophonist Greg Osby, it was interesting to hear the way that he would phrase on his instrument. He was unique. He played with a sense of freedom. He’s hearing the harmony, but he’s not bound by it. He gave a different spark to the jazz music that I listened to or played in college. It influenced my approach to the drums. It’s like watching a flag on a pole. Without the pole the flag would just be wandering. I like the idea of that and seeing all the possibilities around it.

MD: What else did you pursue?

Eric: I wanted to learn how to play in odd meters. If I was going to play in 7/4, I would reference everything from a long seven, which you could say is 7/2, then the standard 7/4, then 7/8, 7/16, and depending on how slow the 7/2 was, I could probably get to 32nds based on this rigid scale of seven. I understood the different values and how they placed on top of each other. But then I also displaced; playing 7/16 in my right hand and 7/4 on my left foot grounded me. And understanding the concepts of speech and breathing, I could take [odd meters] to certain places. If you’re playing in seven, the way the note value moves in 7/16 and 7/32 is fast, but it still fits; it will always line up on the 1 eventually. Within the time frame there are all these rhythms you can hit, and still with the concept of breathing. It has to be something that you practice and practice and practice until you understand completely what it is, then it becomes second nature, and you don’t have to count anymore. I had to spend many months doing just that. Then I would do it in five, nine, eleven, and thirteen. I wanted to be fluent in all these situations.

Tabla Tunes

MD: Your playing is reminiscent of that of a tabla player, in how you put this stream of unbroken information all over the drumset. Tabla comes out of Konnakol, which is a spoken language. That’s similar to how you describe coupling speech with drumming. How did that affect your work with Zakir Hussain?

Eric: It was confirmation from day one. The first album we ever did together was Sangam, a live recording with Charles Lloyd. We literally walked in and Zakir said, “We don’t really know what we’re going to do, so let’s float.” We trusted, and it was beautiful. Then, I didn’t know a lot about Indian rhythms and ragas and how Indian musicians are required to understand rhythm vocally before they can touch an instrument. [But] the spoken rhythmic aspect was in my playing by the time I played with Zakir back in 2004.

MD: It sounds like you’ve worked through various levels of rhythmic awareness.

Eric: You go through periods of understanding, when all you want to do is display what you’ve learned to show people what you can do. Then you mature into understanding what’s needed in the moment. That’s probably the biggest part of my musical growth: understanding all the information that I’d practiced and shedded and all the music I’d learned, and being able to use it wisely.

If a certain band only needs me to groove, then groove is the structure. It doesn’t mean I can’t challenge myself to find something interesting to play within that groove. I recently finished the Masters of Percussion tour with Zakir, where he introduced a different raga to me every night. It was challenging because I had to grasp the raga in a short span of time. These were critical points that were going to start and end a cycle. But everything in between was groove, communication, developments on a theme, like, “Now we’re going to play backwards from ten to one.” Because Zakir is so strong, all I had to do was listen and stay out of the way.

MD: You’re recording with pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s trio. He’s a master of Afro-Cuban rhythms. How does your language change with his music?

Eric: My first instrument was piano. I began with piano at four and drums at five. Now I sit at the piano and play what I hear. And Gonzalo’s first instrument was the drums. That’s why he’s so percussive and has such a wide range of rhythms. The tricky thing about Rubalcaba is that since percussion was his first instrument, he writes out drum parts. He writes out exactly where to strike a drum or a cymbal in his music. Coming from High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, every drummer had to go through the percussion ensemble. Working with Gonzalo, I was able to tie certain tones to the drums. I could create points based on the harmony he played in a song. And he created harmony off tones I played on the drums.

MD: That sounds challenging.

Eric: It was only challenging on the first day of recording. I was definitely sweating. I couldn’t go in and play from the space I normally play from; I had to literally play what he wrote.

Chops Busters

MD: I imagine that at Manhattan School of Music you went through all the drumming and percussion books, but you’re not a huge advocate of learning from books. Beyond putting different rates for different note values on different limbs, what did you do?

Eric: I wanted to develop speed. So I had to synchronize motion. Basically I was trying to push my arms to be as fast as possible.

MD: Did you use a metronome?

Eric: The metronome puts the concept in your mind. It doesn’t put it in your feelings. It doesn’t put it in your body. The only way you’re going to do it is like a track runner: you have to get out there and run, but you also have to introduce resistance so that your body can push past the resistance. So instead of playing drums, I would play on surfaces that gave me absolutely no resistance. The problem with rebound is that it compensates for a lot. So think of the rebound of the stick hitting the cymbal or drum. It’s like bouncing a basketball. So you’re learning how to guide the bounce between the two.

MD: Did you play on pillows?

Eric: Pillows or carpet, if I could find it. Air drumming is good, because there are certain muscles that even when I’d hit a pillow there would be an end point. When I’d play the air there was no surface. So that was more of a full arc of motion, which also developed muscles in my arms more than if I would strike a surface that restricted my arm.

MD: Don’t you need an actual contact point?

Eric: No. It’s like a golf swing. They say within the golf swing that if you don’t follow through with the swing, the club impacts the ball differently. It’s almost like you have to swing as if the ball is not even there. If I don’t have a surface, then I achieve something so that when I do play the drums, even though I hit the drums, I [incorporate] a different range of motion.

MD: How did you build hand strength and dexterity?

Eric: I definitely dealt with the basic, rudimental concepts of singles, doubles, and after that, different versions of the natural flow of motion that happens on the drums. Then paradiddles, double paradiddles. But the main concept of what happens on the drums is singles and doubles. Then introduce triplets in one hand or, if you can, quadruplets in one hand, the technical aspects of which I still work on. You understand the sound of the drum and how your body relates to that sound.

What’s most important is the sound I’m getting from the drum and how that sound is going to affect the musical situation. If the sound has a little too much twang or ring or overtone, in a jazz setting that frequency can clash with the bass. Some people use Moon Gel and some people use gaffer’s tape on the snare drum.

Where’s the 13th Floor?

MD: Would you describe your drumming with Voyager as linear?

Eric: Definitely. My role in Voyager is a linear approach, really pulsating down one lane so that the band can maneuver around what I’m doing.

MD: On Voyager’s latest album, 13th Floor, was “Teller (Aquila)” entirely improvised?

Eric: No. “Teller (Aquila),” which I’ve also recorded with Aziza, is a pattern based around five. But I also play off the melodic sequence. I love the original Branford Marsalis group with Kenny Kirkland, Jeff Watts, and Robert Hurst; they knew that if you want to get into something challenging rhythmically, you need to introduce an equally strong melody consistently so that listeners clearly hear the difference. It’s all about synchronization within the band. “Teller” leads to “Aquila,” using the pattern of “Teller” to morph into another strong melody.

I wanted to get away from the standard approach to playing songs—five solos just to get back to the head. We’re in a new day where there can be more unification within a band’s approach in how you play as one. A solo doesn’t always have to be this one thing; you can solo within the collaborative solo that happens within the band. That’s always been my concept, because then you don’t bombard the audience. And you’re always paying attention because you never know who’s going to interact with your solo.

The best accompanying experience I’ve ever had was when I played with McCoy Tyner. I’d never heard a piano player that knew how to accompany a drum solo like that. He understood when I was trying to build tension and release; he knew exactly what chord to play, according to the song and its emotion.

MD: What are you playing in “Fast 5”?

Eric: I was saying earlier you can have something in 5/2, 5/4.

MD: It feels like 4.

Eric: That’s the thing, 5 and 4 are the same thing. It depends on how you manipulate the space. You can go anywhere that your mind can creatively fit within that space. If you start with a metronome at a very slow tempo, you can squeeze many rhythms into that space. “Fast 5” is a Walter Smith song. The way he approaches the melody is more based off of 5/8, and then Taylor and Harish are holding it down like it’s in 5/2. So in between 5/8 and 5/2 I get to dance between playing in 5/2, 5/4, 5/8, and 5/16 in how I approach the rhythm, while also using that concept of breathing and space. They were creating around me. In this tune one or two guys hold it down, synchronize playing the simple pattern, and then I shape and color around everything.

MD: In “Contrast” you’re playing very intensely at a low dynamic level. What’s the secret to that kind of control?

Eric: That goes back to stamina and developing that type of technique, which comes from practicing finger control. Using fingers is a more finessed way of manipulating the rebound, because in order to play that fast and not get tired, you want to switch between hand positions. We have the standard three sticking positions: American, French, and German grips.

MD: Which do you favor?

Eric: You have to do all three because they all focus on different muscle tensions in your hand. The secret for me is not getting tired. I alternate between all three grips, because when one muscle gets tired, I move to the next grip.

MD: In your Zildjian Vault Performance video you discuss different head treatments. In the song “Dark Horse” it sounds like you’re striking a cymbal on a snare drum.

Eric: Yes, exactly. I put a cymbal on the snare drum sometimes or place an extra drum head on the snare drum head so I don’t have to retune the snare drum. If I already like the [sonic] placement of the snare drum, I can take another snare head and cut off its rim, and throw that on the snare drum. It lowers the pitch of the snare drum about five notches. So instead of the drum being high and bright it becomes a darker sound, but you still benefit from the bounce of the tuning. Tuning has a lot to do with the drum’s sound, but it also affects the head’s pressure. If the head is tight you can get a quicker snap. Adding another thin head on top, you still get the tightness of the snare drum head. It’s just sitting on the snare drum head. I do it with the toms too. If I want to tune the toms really tight and tense but I still want to get a lower sound I do the same thing. And then I can maneuver around the kit super fast.

MD: On “13th Floor,” your drumming sounds like fingers on a tabla drum, the way the rhythm evolves in a constant spiral. You create energy at a low dynamic level.

Eric: That’s a progressive harmonic cycle that repeats. I like to watch horror movies. I like how in horror films the music being created is just to build suspense, and it doesn’t have to resolve. It’s enough for it to create that moment; it offers an audible frame of view to which you can interpret whatever you want. It doesn’t have to lead you somewhere that you may not feel like you want to go. That’s the concept of “13th Floor.” You can still find optimism on “13th Floor,” a number always associated with something fearful, but the emotion is up to you.

MD: Your first album was The X Field with guitarist Rodney Jones. Was that your big break?

Eric: Yes. Rodney was my student combo director while I was at Manhattan School of Music. He wanted me to record two albums with him. That was the first time I realized you can make money playing, because we did two records back to back and he took time for each record. But more than that he put me in prime placement. The album included Kevin Hays and Greg Osby. I’m a young kid, but I’m going to play with these cats who’ve already made names for themselves. That’s how I met Greg Osby, and that became my first touring band. Then Steve Coleman called me for work. Working on that one album introduced me to the whole scene.

MD: What’s your advice for maintaining a successful career in the music business?

Eric: Don’t get lazy. Relax as much as you want, but don’t get lazy, meaning don’t cheat yourself out of an experience; always be open to every possibility. A lot of musicians turn down certain things because they’re not up for the challenge of learning something new. The success in my life has always come from things where I had no idea what I was doing. It needed to be that way so I could gain experience. If life is about being experiential, you have to go out there and do it. Even if you suck, the thing is that everybody loves a comeback story. If you get out there and you fail, that’s even more pressure to live up to, but you did get the opportunity. If you suck you’ll get another chance to do it better.

That’s the best thing I felt about listening to albums by great musicians. It’s the arc of what they achieved. Every time they were dealing with different beings conceptually, and they’d bring in different ideas. Think about the times when Miles Davis’s chops were dead-on and other times you can tell he seems like he’s not feeling it. You’ve got to stay in the process. Stay in the flow so that these opportunities are continually there for you. Just don’t get lazy.


 

Harland’s Setup

Drums: Sakae Celestial Series
A. 5.5×14 snare drum
B. 7×10 tom
C. 8×12 tom
D. 13×14 floor tom
E. 16×18 bass drum

Cymbals: Zildjian
1. 13″ K Custom Special Dry hi-hats (10″ EFX splash laying on top)
2. 22″ K Custom Special Dry Complex ride
3. 10″ K Custom splash / 10″ Oriental China Trash (stack)
4. 22″ K Custom Special Dry crash
5. 16″ K Custom Special Dry crash / K Custom EFX crash (stack)
Heads: Remo Ambassador Coated
Sticks: Vic Firth Freestyle 85A sticks, brushes, and mallets


Be sure to check out Eric’s MD subscriber exclusive video on his current setup.

Eric Harland On His Current Setup


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