LIVE: Eric Harland’s Voyager @ Skidmore College’s Zankel Center, 9/26/14
Review and photographs by J Hunter
I shouldn’t have been surprised at the half-house that greeted uber-drummer Eric Harland as he led his band Voyager out onto the vast stage at Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center. Just in terms of jazz alone, it was a busy Friday night; George Garzone was headlining the second show in the at A Place For Jazz series, while the Chronicles were throwing a fifth anniversary party at the Albany Barn. But I was surprised, if not a little outraged – but then I decided to take the selfish viewpoint: “More mind-bending music for me!”
When I say “mind-bending,” I’m not just plumbing my thesaurus for something sensational-sounding. Whether it’s with SFJAZZ Collective or James Farm, Harland’s compositions have always had an element of the spiritual to them, but Voyager bumps that zeitgeist up a few levels. “We like to start with our mantra,” Harland intoned, grinning, playing his kit with one drumstick as the band eased into “Relax,” the opening number from the band’s second release Vipassana (pronounced “Vih-PAH-sin-nuh”). Other bands may claim their music can take you to another place, but as Harland told us before introducing his partners, once Voyager kicks into gear, “we actually voyage!” And when the group transitioned from “Relax” into the big waltzing pulse of “Raghavan,” that’s when our voyage really began.
“Raghavan” is named for Harish Raghavan, the intense bass player who’s also come through these parts with vocalist Kurt Elling. Raghavan owns a big, bad tone and a relentless attack usually associated with pit bulls, except pit bulls don’t have the stellar sense of touch and lyric Raghavan’s got. Even hitting single notes got your attention, because those notes were Orca fat. And while most bassists’ primary job is to hold down the floor so the soloists can dance, the entire band shared foundation chores in the same way solo spots swung back and forth between all five members. Both the music and the musicians blossomed before us as Harland led Voyager through the length of Vipassana, only stopping when it was time for the encore… 65 minutes after the first notes of “Relax” were played!
As Harland said during a previous visit to Skidmore, his music is “all about segueways.” To put it another way, the band’ll rest when they’re dead, but until then, it’s a marathon, not a series of sprints. While some pieces naturally dovetailed, there were moments throughout the show where one musician was left out in the clear, tasked to build the bridge that would take the group to the next piece. Each of these moments let a member show his own questing side, and his own sense of the spiritual – or, at least, the sense of the spiritual Harland’s music had embossed on the musician. In many ways, this show shared a lot with Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band’s visit to the Zankel last year – another spiritually driven show, except Blade’s music leaned more toward the gospel-music side of the equation. Either way, there wasn’t a solo section that didn’t make you close your eyes and think, “This is SO intense!”
It was at Harland’s first pre-Voyager show (appearing as “Harland…” six years ago at Filene Recital Hall) where keyboardist Taylor Eigsti shook off the “young phenom” tag and just played like he was intended to play. Eigsti was back at Zankel and blooming even brighter, both with the band and in his own unaccompanied slots. His best moment came on the first number of the encore, a reboot of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” that let Eigsti soar through the rafters. Guitarist Julian Lage (another “young phenom”) took another big step at Zankel, and that was because he was doing double duty: On Vipassana, Lage shares the guitar chair with Nir Felder, whose searing electric style is closer to Nels Cline than Pat Metheny. To give Harland’s new compositions the snap they needed, Lage ditched his usual electric/acoustic rig in favor of a white Fender Stratocaster, with marvelously snarling results. Tenorman/Skidmore Jazz alum Walter Smith III wasn’t snarling – in fact, this was the most reserved I’ve ever seen him, and that’s a tribute to his own creative growth curve. Early in his career, Smith would have been throwing bombs all night long in an attempt to prove he belonged. With Voyager, Smith stayed within Harland’s matrix perfectly, only letting his flag fly when needed… and when those moments came, Smith was utterly massive.
I still remember how gobsmacked I was at the end of that Filene Recital show six years ago, and how I literally begged Harland afterwards to record the band on the tour they were embarking on the following day. I doubt I had anything to do with it, but that tour was indeed recorded, and released in Europe as Voyager: Live by Night. With the help of some outstanding musicians who have full buy-in on the concept, Harland has shaped this music and this group into something that still has its roots in jazz while its towering branches reach for the sky. The two standing ovations Eric Harland Voyager did not just signal appreciation for a great performance – they were releases of energy and excitement by people forcing themselves to stay as quiet as possible, so they wouldn’t miss a thing.
More of Rudy Lu’s photographs at Rudy Lu Photos