You’ve heard Eric Harland as the musical backbone of artists like Dave Holland,Charles Lloyd, and Joshua Redman (you may have heard of them)—now, he’s taking on the role of bandleader for the second time with his latest album Vipassana, a meditative journey through the sounds of “modern jazz” (among other genres).

Eric Harland gets into the method and meaning behind his newest album, 'Vipassana,' in an exclusive interview with Revive.

An alum of Houston’s now-famous High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Harland‘s career began with an endorsement from none other than Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis’s recommendation brought him to Manhattan School of Music, and after a brief stint as a man of the cloth (more on that in Part II), he began playing with everyone from McCoy Tyner to Zakir Hussain. He’s collaborated with Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard on movie scores, appeared on Grammy-nominated albums, and even made some forays into the pop world (Mariah Carey anyone?). Somehow, he’s also found time to launch his own ensemble, Voyager, featuring Walter Smith III, Julian Lage, Taylor Eigsti and Harish Raghavan. Their first release was the critically acclaimed live album Voyager: Live by Night. With the addition of Nir Felder and Chris Turner, Harland recorded Vipassana, the group’s first studio album.

We had a chance to speak with Harland about the album (and music, and the meaning of life) last week—read part one of the interview below:

Revive: This is pretty much your debut as a bandleader, right? Since the last one was live?

Eric Harland: Exactly. With the live recording, I had somewhat of a vision—but not really. It was just us kind of playing, and me taking the opportunity to really see what being a bandleader was about, and what kind of sound could be created from a group of guys gathering together. Seeing that whole process—going down that road. Then, it just took me this long to have something I really felt like I wanted to say. That’s why it took so long for me to do a studio recording.

R: I know that you play with so many insanely talented artists—how has being a part of so many great, but really different bands informed how you lead your own?

EH: Basically, I go into every situation pretty much as a person for hire—when someone calls me to be in their band, I show up ready to be the best I can be, to support their situation. I would always observe the way that they handle just leading the band, from the way that certain people would talk to the audience, how they would engage the audience, to what kind of music they were doing, or how they themselves were just approaching playing within their own setting…things like that. How they felt about their career, different conversations about where they thought they wanted to be, or why they didn’t think they were at certain places, even why they really weren’t at certain places—really just gathering a lot of awareness, without any particular direction.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to lead my own band. I was very comfortable being a sideman, because all I had to do was play. They give you the music, book the flights, I’m there, I learn the music…the gig is easy. I give 110%, and do the best that I possibly can do. The other thing is that, at a certain point, I started to realize that I did have something I wanted to say. I said, “I wonder if I can find a way to say this with music, that hasn’t been said in this way before.”

I’m very into people—today, maybe that sounds weird. I’m into people in the sense that I think people are just wonderful. Just the existence of us being here is such a beautiful thing. That’s kind of it in a nutshell—I think people are beautiful, I think humanity is beautiful. Seeing humanity and the spirit of who we are in that way allows me to really see myself in terms of the authenticity of what I have or who I am. It’s hard to really see yourself, like a knife doesn’t know it’s a knife until it cuts something—but, through reflection, you start to get a sense like “maybe this is who I am.” Then, you start to really focus on not so much who you are, but what you want to say.

I started realizing that I’d wanted to convey something to show people that I care. I think everybody’s doing that in a different way, it’s just that we all have different ways that we express our love, or our gratitude, or our comfort, or our discomfort. It’s all just a virtue of expression. So this album, it captured just me in my reflective state. That’s pretty much what the title means—Vipassana is “insight meditation.” I can’t say that I’m a super meditative cat, like sitting up at the top of the Himalayas or anything (not that I would never go there and try it out!). I like to be in the mix, and I like to chat…for lack of a better word, I like to gossip. Not gossip as in like tearing people down, but…it’s nice basically just to be. To be yourself without any judgements or any complaints. The first step to getting to that for me, was always about me relaxing enough to understand that that’s ok. That was my direction with meditation, just realizing that everything was ok – I might complain about things because they don’t make me feel good, or they might not be according to what I would like to see happen, but that’s just my personal complaint. Ultimately, life is life, and it’s so vast, and so beautiful, and encompasses such a large number of people—who am I to be anything but just in gratitude about it? It’s not just about me.

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R: Most of the stuff on the album is original, right?

EH: Yeah, all of it’s original, except I did an arrangement of “Maiden Voyage.”

R: I loved that you put the trademark symbol on that.

EH: Well, I included it because the name of the band is Voyager, and so I thought, “It’s like ‘Maiden Voyager’— like the beginning.” I think this is the first record that’s really capturing our sound, taking everything we’ve done and really packaging it. Saying, “This is the direction we’re taking.” I mean, it’s probably not going to be the direction for that much longer, because it’s a voyage, and it’s suppose to expand and include other ideas. But people, between the first record and this record, they started to really hear—hopefully they hear a sound, a sense of direction, and a theme within the ensemble, because that’s what it’s really about. Us being a family, a brotherhood of guys—we really love playing together, and we really love making music together. Everybody is just nice, and funny, and so cool to be around—and it really shows up in the music. But also very intellectual—we’re all thinkers, and we brainstorm a lot on the different concepts that we bring into the music and into the band. We also think a lot about the fact that it’s not just about us being onstage as musicians, but that it’s also wonderful to invite people into the experience of what you have to say.

R: What was the composition process like? Do you write on your own, or is it collective? Where do you start?

EH: I compose from a system of just gathering ideas, and then I present those ideas to the band. I don’t want to restrict anyone. Say I have something that I feel like the guitar part should play. But I don’t know if physically, he feels comfortable playing that. I want to be open enough that if he doesn’t feel comfortable playing that, that wasn’t the make or break part for the tune. He should be able to come up with something that feels organic to him, that brings his own piece to the puzzle. I’m a jazz musician—I express life, I express myself. Who am I to just have everybody else be in something of mine, where I’m the only one who gets a chance to express myself? We all express life, and I use these ideas as a structure so that we have an avenue. I’m not going to tell you how to drive, but here’s point A and here’s point B. Get there how you want to get there.

R: Do you start from a groove? Harmonies?

EH: It all depends on inspiration. I am a drummer, but piano was my first instrument—a lot of the time I sit down at the piano, and I’m just finding chordal sounds that really make me feel good. If that sound makes me feel good, I tend to believe that it’s going to make somebody else feel good. What I do is I take those chords and I start to align them, based on how they make me feel. From that point, I find a groove or a sound that would really go with that. That happens when we come together as a band to approach the song—a lot of things become clear, because everyone’s energy is suddenly in the song. There’s a groove, there’s a pulse, there’s a theme that starts to happen, and the song comes to life. That’s where everything comes together.

R: You said you’ve been working on it for a while.

EH: Yeah, a lot of the stuff I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to put out—as a jazz musician, sometimes you get held into one thing, one idea. People say, “Oh, he’s just jazz,” when I’m actually not. I see myself with everything–I’m blessed to be known as a jazz musician, and a creative artist. I love that, because all I want to do is be creative. So within that creativity, I don’t want to be limited to just one genre. I want to be able to present anything, and people will understand that it will never loses that sense of creativity, and progression, and really reaching—because that’s my personality, that’s who I am. I’m always trying to reach for something that’s really going to grab the listener in a different way. I want to be able to turn the knob, without having to do it in an obvious way. There’s a lot of obvious ways to do that—you shout at somebody, you dress weird (maybe I shouldn’t say weird, but you know…)—there’s so many ways you can do things to grab attention. I tend to believe that energy can grab its own attention in the same sense. You can have a presence about you and about your music that can speak for itself. I wouldn’t believe that if I hadn’t seen it in other people’s music. That’s something that really speaks to me—I focus my energy on that, and really just put it out there, and just believe that it’s doing its thing. Touching the hearts and bringing people into a different sound, to a different direction.

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R: In the spirit of doing things differently, you decided to add a vocalist on this album. What inspired you to add that element?

EH: The whole concept of the record, even down to the art design on the cover, has to do with the threefold being of an individual—whether you call it mind-body-spirit, or id-ego-superego, or here-there-the space in between—these are all ways to define the trinity. There’s an equilateral triangle on the cover that’s like the base: mind, body, and spirit. Then within it, there’s all these other equilateral triangles that are just moving around, inside of you and outside of you. And I feel like that’s everybody. We have an alternate version of ourselves that we see, that we fantasize about, maybe a certain understanding of who we are, and there’s aspects of ourselves that we don’t know. So these things, these thoughts and other information are just kind of travelling around within us and around us. To also capture that in the music, I really wanted Chris Turner’s [the vocalist’s] part to really be like thoughts in your mind.

So when you hear him come out on “Relax,” he’s just like “Worry…no…worry…no”—just the ways we talk to ourselves that other people don’t interpret as much. A lot of times when we present ourselves to people, we’ve already practiced everything in order to present the best package. So when I was doing this record, it was like, “Here’s me in the raw.” These voices are echoing in my head, and sometimes I’m unsure about certain things, and sometimes I’m sure about certain things, and that’s how the process of the record went. Like, I find that I need to relax at certain times—I need a mantra to help center me. It seems like a lot of people just wake up and they’re fine. Like, I’m not fine all the time. I get upset in my life, and I have to tell myself, “Let me try not to worry, let me just be cool”…it’s helpful. So starting with “Relax” was very important to me.

R: Why don’t you take us through the rest of the album?

EH: Then, moving into “Raghavan,” which is actually a song composed by the bassist Harish Raghavan. It was perfect because it’s a song that people expect to hear from Voyager. At the same time, I felt like it was the first entrance into meditation. You always enter into meditation with what you know, and what’s familiar. It takes time to get to the unfamiliar territory because, well, it’s unfamiliar. You start with what you know. People think they have to sit down Indian-style, burn some incense—it’s all because that’s what we think meditation is, that’s why we do that. So after “Relax,” we do “Raghavan,” almost because it’s like, this is what’s expected.

But then, we go to “Passana”—the passage. After you’ve done what’s expected, you start to perceive what’s beyond expected. That’s when the voices, the thoughts started. Like I started to hear certain desires, cry-outs for help, certain things I loved about myself, certain things I didn’t want to accept about myself… but then there was a central clarity within the chaos, that it was all ok.

That just kind of moved into “Vi.” I moved from the voices in my head to also putting it into the piano, that there can be a lyrical harmonic progression like a flow of water, a stream of consciousness, that can just come in and if allowed, just propels you into a certain direction, opens you up to a whole other thing.

After that it led into “Eminence,” which is just like this divine gratitude. The understanding that there can be sanity and insanity at the same time, the understanding that things can be busy and simple at the same time, things can be complex, nothing, everything…I was like, that’s just so beautiful. That evolves into excitement, which leads to “Singularis”—everything becomes one. I feel it, that we’re all one. We’re all breathing the same air, we’re all doing the same thing, but we just have this illusion of separation. We feel our own sense of being set apart, but the oneness is still there.

Then it was like, “Wow, normal.” I’m looking at what we are—I’ve gone through the whole process of meditating and excitement and oneness, and I’m left with the idea that we all seem to be…”Normal.” With every breath we breathe.

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R: Did you write the lyrics for that?

EH: Yeah, I wrote the lyrics. Is it a dream, or our reality? Is this something I can wait another day for? Do I really want to be just…this? Or do I want to be more than this? Do I want to reach for these other desires that are in my heart, and is that OK? You see that that is OK, to continue to reach and to push to the unlimited potential that you have within you. So it becomes an anthem, of course.

That leads us into “Green,” which I found to be the balance to “Normal.” It was composed by Walter Smith [III] for the band, but in memory of another great saxophonist, Jimmy Green—his daughter died in the Sandy Hook shooting. I wanted to have this as a moment to pay tribute—because now, though I’m making music, and working towards the ultimate being of myself that I imagined, I’m also realizing the things that we do as humans that maybe don’t serve our higher purpose. We need to take a moment to reflect on the fallen ones, the one who have surrendered their lives so that we can understand more in this lifetime. Throughout history there have always been great people whose lives have been sacrificed so that we have more awareness, and hopefully so that we can learn from these situations, that we can evolve and grow. So that’s what that was for—we had to just take that moment. I wanted no drums, nothing—just guitar and voice. To cleanse the palate. It’s good to be on the mountaintop, but sometimes, if you’re way up on top of the mountain, you don’t realize what’s happening in the valley. You want to be able to bring the experience of the mountaintop back down to the valley, and just be there with everybody, be together.

We went to “Anjou,” which is actually a type of wine…a fantastic wine. It’s a beautiful song, also composed by the bassist Harish. I remember, I did a gig with him and he played me that song, just playing it on the bass. I was like, “That’s a gorgeous tune, man. We’ve got to do that.” I was so glad that he was willing to play it, because it was perfect for the album. It feels like you’re sitting there, having some wine and reflecting. You’ve gotten to the mountaintop, and gone down to the valley to be with the people, and now you’re sitting among the people—you’re going to have a glass of wine, and see everything. To come back within everything, and feel that sense of wonder about what’s around you.

That led to “Capacity.” Which is similar—asking, what is the limit of all this? Basically, everything has a message, all the way down to the last one, “Dhyāna.” Dhyāna is the Buddhist term for “no labels”—I just didn’t want to put “no labels” on a record, because I think sometimes people get sensitive when they hear the word “no.” I wanted Chris to chant that in the music [sings] “I’m not a label”—the idea that everyday, we all have a chance to rewrite ourselves, in the highest form that we choose. There’s a quote from an author I love named Neale Donald Walsch: “Live the grandest version ever you held about who you are.” I’ve always loved that. It can change—you ever shouldn’t be confined to a label when it comes to defining yourself.

So yeah, that’s it.

R: Yeah, seems pretty simple haha. It seems like the album is almost intended to be theraputic—is that a stretch?

EH: Exactly, it is—therapeutic and transcendent. From what you think you have to do, to realizing what’s completely OK to do. Really the way I look at it is just the process of…being. Moving from a lot of doing-ness to being-ness. Recognizing that you can do your whole life, but it’s what you’re being while you’re doing that really transmits to the core of your being. Living more a life of fulfillment, and less of just stuff.

Stay tuned for the second part of our interview with Eric Harland as he talks about ‘Vipassana,’ his latest album. To buy your copy of ‘Vipassana,’ click here. If you’re in NYC, Harland is hosting his release show tonight at the Highline Ballroom—you’re not going to want to miss this one!

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