Saturday, September 24, 2011

An Interview with Eric Harland

I'm now working as a part-time freelance writer for Mercer County's Community News Service.  The managing editor knows I like jazz, so he asked me last week to write up a little pre-show feature  for the SFJazz Collective concert on October 5, at McCarter Theatre in Princeton.  I gladly agreed, all the more happy to do it because I would get to interview a member of the group.  

So yesterday, I talked over the phone with drummer Eric Harland for about 45 minutes.  He was a very gracious interviewee.  The writeup for the show is due Monday, and I'll post that when it's up.  But most of what Mr. Harland said won't go into that.  So, with his consent, I've posted an edited version of the interview, in a sort of narrative form, below.

Eric Harland
"It’s totally leaderless, it’s a collective, hence the name.  It was purposed that way so that it could be something that is continuously evolving," Eric Harland told me about the eight-piece SFJazz Collective, which is supported by SFJazz, the Bay Area organization.

"Usually an all-star band happens for a season or two and it dissipates," Mr. Harland said.  "This is the first time that something like this has been introduced in the music, and it's just so great to be able to compose, to rehearse, to play, to tour.  Pretty much, you're an artist in residence every year."

Every year since 2004, the members of the SFJazz Collective--different members go in and out--have each been commissioned to write one original composition and to arrange a piece of music from the songbook of a jazz icon.  Past arrangements have included those of the compositions of John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman. 

For Mr. Harland, being a member of the collective (he joined in 2006, when he was 30) has given him the chance to write music. 

"For me, it was an opportunity to write, and see how I felt about being a composer," he said.  "The band catered to my musical growth, and the direction I needed to go."  "Plus, it’s great to be commissioned," he added.  

This year, the members of the band--including alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon, tenorist Mark Turner, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, pianist Edward Simon, bassist Matt Penman, and Mr. Harland--have interpreted the songs of Stevie Wonder.  They already toured in the spring, with their 16 new songs, but are starting a fall tour in October.  And of course, Mr. Wonder is not a jazz musician through and through, but that is no impediment. 

I asked Mr. Harland if he thought this year's collective might get more attention, because of the Stevie Wonder connection.

"We came to Stevie because he himself is such a great composer and a great musician. Some people who don’t pay attention to jazz, there’s just something about hearing Stevie Wonder’s name that causes them to look in that direction," he said.  "But I think over all we just wanted to see—it was just pretty much an experiment—a new direction to see how it would sound.

"It’s music and the beauty about jazz is that you’re open to trying other things, not necessarily trying to always come up with the perfect solution—it’s about the journey, the experience.

"And because it’s all music, why wouldn’t you have Stevie in the same line as Coltrane, or Tyner or Ornette? It’s only we who come up with genres—it’s really music, it’s just expression.  Music has different languages, but at the same time, if something is groovy, it's groovy, and it doesn’t matter what the type is. It’s just music."

"The beauty about the band is that everyone is bringing in a different dynamic of the music, and they seem to balance each other out: uptempo, medium tempo, ballads, groove, orchestral," Mr. Harland said, when I asked him how the band planned its arrangements.  "It just happened, we didn’t discuss what kinds of tunes we would make."

And how much did they tweak the arrangements in rehearsal?

"When you’re writing, it’s more like you're sketching ideas, and sometimes in rehearsal some ideas work and some don’t, so you take them with a grain of salt," he said.

Is Stevie Wonder aware of the music they are making?

"Hopefully he’s listening to it and enjoying it," Mr. Harland said, admitting that he had not yet heard anything from Mr. Wonder.  "I’m hoping that he feels honored and that he feels the love that we put into the music.  I hope he feels the appreciation we have for him," he added.

Did he listen to Stevie Wonder growing up?

"I mean, who didn't listen to Stevie growing up?" he said.  "Everywhere I went, it was always Stevie.  His songs just relate to everybody.  I think his music reaches everybody in the world.  It’s so moving and so fulfilling.  I couldn’t imagine not listening to Stevie wonder.  Probably in the generations to come, there might be a lot of people who will be like, 'Stevie who?'  But there’s so much honesty in his music and lyrics that has become a part of the American vernacular." 

Why did he choose to arrange Mr. Wonder's song "Do I Do"?

"I chose 'Do I Do' because it has that fantastic Dizzy Gillespie solo in it," he said.  "And what jazz trumpeter is not influenced by Dizzy Gillespie?"

At this point in our conversation, I had pretty much gotten what I needed for the short article I'd be writing, but Mr. Harland seemed more than willing to keep talking, so I continued with a few more questions.  I asked him about how it is playing in the Charles Lloyd Quartet, with Jason Moran on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and that elder statesman of jazz, Charles Lloyd, on saxophone. 

"I love an honest gentleman," he said of Mr. Lloyd.  "He's a great friend, and the band is really great.  You can’t beat that chemistry in the band."

If you didn't know, there are jazz musicians pouring out of Houston into New York every year--great jazz musicians.  Mr. Harland is one of them, so is Jason Moran, and others include the pianist Robert Glasper, the drummer Kendrick Scott, and the guitarist Mike Moreno. 

So I asked Mr. Harland how he feels about that, if it's at all surreal, if he's shocked that he grew up with so many of his colleagues. 

He told me that Jason Moran's grandparents' house was ten houses down from where he grew up, though he officially met him in high school, at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

"On a certain level, we all just wanted to play music, and we didn’t think about any other option," Mr. Harland said, comparing the environment of the school to "Fame," a musical film from 1980 about a group of students in the New York High School of Performing Arts.

"It was a school filled with artists and you just worked on your craft all day," Mr. Harland continued. "And we had fantastic teachers to keep us in that realm of music and we had each other and were motivated to play all the time and to check out all kinds of music—the archive at the school is just great.

"And we were just digging in and checking it out and having opinions about the music and having discussions—and that’s something your don’t normally see in high school.  But by having that in high school, it allowed us to be more present with the music.

"Then there's the competition factor—you know, friendly competitiveness.  If your friend is doing well, you feel like you have to rise to the challenge, and we all kind of motivated each other.  We also knew that it was important to be an individual, to force yourself to be an individual.

"And the product of that is what you see today, all these fantastic musicians, everybody doing their own thing, nobody borrowing from somebody else's success.  It's like a Houston magic, something you cultivate down there.  And outside, people pay attention to it for some reason.  I think it really is something special; it's real.  And everything is real, you know, but I don’t know, there's something about it.  It's definitely love. 

"When I hear my colleagues play, I'm always moved, and I can't say I'm always moved by everything I hear.  I like something that moves me, whether it's intellectual, in the heart, chills in the spine, I want to feel the experience of music.  Houston is just pumping 'em out every year.  I think every city should have that dynamic, just that appreciation for each other.  I know Philly has a really strong brotherhood, and a lot of great musicians come out of Philadelphia."

Mr. Harland now lives in Pennsylvania.  He has a family, and enjoys the bucolic side of life.  "I like living in Pennsylvania because there’s a lot of countryside, and a lot of time to relax, and just be," he said.  "It’s beautiful."

By this time in our conversation, I had to go, and was surprised that Mr. Harland was still talking to me.  He seemed completely willing to go on for another hour.

Before I hung up, he said he hoped I'd do my best in whatever I do.

I told him I'd try.

"We’re all trying," he said.  "Its not about achieving perfection--it’s about the experience, which is a little different."

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