SFJAZZ Drummer Finds His Own Special Beat

Raised on gospel and a fan of hip-hop, Eric Harland writes daring compositions.

In early February, the members of SFJAZZ Collective flew out to San Francisco for two days of rehearsal at Nob Hill Masonic Center. The eight musicians had each been commissioned to arrange a piece by saxophonist Wayne Shorter and write one original tune, and they planned to work out all the kinks in two compressed, eight-hour periods. Despite the group’s moniker, most of its members live on the East Coast.

Vibraphonist Stefon Harris held court next to the piano, leading everyone in the coda section of his composition. “I think that might be slick if you swing it,” he said to drummer Eric Harland, articulating the rhythm in precise “tikka tikkas” that sounded a little less ornate than a human beatbox. Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón pointed out that the last section was starting to drag. When they got back to the head, Harland tried coming in on the offbeats. He was still figuring out how to get the groove going.

Lean and handsome, with a denim SFJAZZ baseball cap and large, diamond-studded watch, 31-year-old Harland remained a key figure during the rehearsal for what’s essentially a leaderless band. He and Harris went back and forth over where to use less high-hat and add more kick; then he worked through what sounded like a triplet figure with bassist Matt Penman. “They put a lot of that pressure on me,” Harland said later. “I just accept it, but I don’t really know where that comes from. I guess they look at the drums [as] such a big instrument that … can definitely overpower, but it isn’t really the drums that create dynamics.”

Despite his protests, Harland is a powerful, but extremely sensitive drummer. He sounds soft even if he’s playing hard. Born in Houston, Texas, and raised in the church band, he learned to play by internalizing the barrelhouse sounds of Southern gospel and “letting the spirit take over.” In fact, Harland attributes his love of hip-hop to his church roots. Gospel taught him to love the visceral quality of boombap, or any music with a bump to it. “You don’t really understand the theory of the music,” he said. “It just kinda gets passed down.”

Harland started playing in jazz combos while attending the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Back then he weighed 380 pounds. “I got ridiculed,” he said. “Music was kinda like my way of expressing. I could always retreat.” He would practice for hours, playing along with Coltrane records. “I was subconsciously learning that way. I was hearing the shape of jazz music, the structure, the standards, the AAB form.” He got a full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music and toured with Greg Osby and Betty Carter, and later performed with McCoy Tyner, Ravi Coltrane, and Terence Blanchard, to name a few. After years as a gun-for-hire, Harland became a composer in his own right, though he still doesn’t lead his own group.

Performing in a quartet led by seventy-year-old saxophone legend Charles Lloyd (plus Jason Moran on keys and bassist Reuben Rogers), Harland characterizes himself as an anchor for Lloyd’s quickly unspooling, Coltrane-style runs, and Moran’s jagged, maximalist phrasings. He often fills several minutes mid-song with what sounds like a carefully crafted solo. In “Booker’s Garden,” he shifts the mood on a dime, switching from slow ballad fills to an upbeat, syncopated rhythm. In Penman’s piece for the SFJAZZ Collective, Harland plays his version of a clave rhythm. “I’m not a Latin cat. I don’t really sit and go ‘dat, dat, dat, dat, dat,'” he explained, clapping a line of dotted quarter and eighth notes. “… So I come up with something innovative. Maybe someone’s looking for that.”

Harland’s new piece for the SFJAZZ Collective is a conceptual tune called “The Year 2008.” Comprising two different groove sections, the song begins with a sample of Harland reciting the Declaration of Independence. Such post-modern techniques befit Harland, who pegs himself as a hip-hop head and has several J Dilla beats committed to memory.

The idea of starting a piece from the drums’ perspective seems apropos for someone who learned to play by ear. The song’s title is a nod to this year’s presidential election but also reflects his desire to “go forward” with American music. It will surely be one of the more daring compositions to emerge from SFJAZZ Collective, which is surprising for someone who has risen up the ranks as a sideman, but has yet to consolidate his career as a bandleader. But Harland said he’s constantly stepping up his game: “I always like to put myself in an uncomfortable position.”

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