Jazz drummer and Houston native Eric Harland grew up in the Pleasantville neighborhood, although his early musical days weren’t all that pleasant. For years, his mother strictly schooled him in the piano, which taught young Eric that he’d rather play the drums.
“It was the one instrument that I felt like I could develop a personal relationship with,” Harland says. “I could feel free to express myself how and when I wanted to, and it was just beautiful.”
Which is not to say that Harland—whom the New York Times would later declare “a drummer of superhuman abilities”—lacked musical allies. His uncle, singer and band leader Leo Polk, taught him jazz history. Craig Green, once a member of the legendary Kashmere Stage Band, gave him drum lessons. And his classmates at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, from which he graduated in 1994, offered camaraderie and inspiration. Many of them later became professional jazz musicians as well, Jason Moran and Robert Glasper among them.
Harland even had an early big-name supporter. “Wynton Marsalis did this master class my senior year at HSPVA,” recalls Harland, “and he was one of the first people to be like, ‘Man, you need to be in New York.’”
It was Marsalis’s recommendation letter that helped Harland land a full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music. Since then, he has toured internationally, played on over a hundred records (including 18 film scores), and collaborated with superstars like Terence Blanchard, McCoy Tyner, and Dave Holland.
Harland first formed the jazz quintet Voyager five years ago for a two-week engagement in France. The group’s repertoire consists mainly of original compositions, kinetic and voluptuous songs anchored in the mainstream jazz tradition yet also indebted to gospel, early fusion, and hip-hop. Harland and his fellow musicians—saxophonist and fellow Houstonian Walter Smith III, pianist Taylor Eigsti, guitarist Julian Lage, and bassist Harish Raghavan—play with a chemistry that’s rare in improvised music.
This month Harland comes home as a headliner in Da Camera’s jazz series. The 36-year-old musician, who now makes his home in Pennsylvania, says he encourages his fellow musicians to connect to each song in their own way. That’s what jazz is all about: antagonistic cooperation, the complex struggle to express yourself within the confines of a group. Note-perfect technique, the kind his mother once tried to teach him, was never Harland’s way.
“The goal is to always stay true to the music, stay true to the moment, stay true to myself,” he says. “And I think people will feel that sincerity and realness no matter what I do. It’s hard to argue with the heart.”