Heavy ideas from the world of jazz…#3

This post features the work (or rather, the ideas) of the very, very highly acclaimed drummer Eric Harland – one of a very, very small number of actual bona-fide jazz musicians who has actually studied theology in some kind of formal context – in his case, at the College of Biblical Studies at Houston Baptist University. Despite this training that was to set him up for a career in ministry, Harland has gone on to develop of body of work in professional jazz that would be considered outstanding in any context. I, for one, would dearly love to know what made him take the path he did. Not because I have any reason to believe that it is not the path he should have chosen – but because I am truly curious to understand. And I’d also love to know more about the precise ways in which he lives his Christian faith as a major jazz artist.

The following is a blog post from Eric’s website, but he is not the writer, as you will see. It is not clear whether the writer is Jeffrey Morse ot R.J DeLuke, but whoever it is, here it is:
“My music is a lot about segues,” Harland told me a couple weeks before the show. “It’s less about the composition itself. It’s about having a composition that allows the members of the band to fully be in the moment. I never liked having to be so caught up in a tune that I couldn’t live in the moment. … We have a thing. Me and Jason Moran say it all the time: circular. It means that everything rotates around you like the Earth. And the Earth goes around the sun. The same things happens between the band and the audience. Even within the band. What you give kind of comes back around and keeps moving around. I always felt like if the musicians on stage are too caught up in the music, what they’re doing on stage, they’re not really paying attention to the moment. Or the direction the music can take. As well as what the people in the audience will feel. Something kind of gets lost a little bit.”

Listening to the artistry of this band, those words came back to me. He succeeded in bringing about that concept.

It also called to mind a recent conversation with the renowned young trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Moran produced Akinmusire’s very good new album that doesn’t come out until April.) A little while after acknowledging Moran as a major influence, he talked about music thusly: “I believe that composition–music in general–shouldn’t be exact. It shouldn’t be straight up and down. It should be a circle. That’s the way nature is. When you look at a tree, it doesn’t go click-click-click. It sways around. I try to capture that in my music.”

Harland’s show was superb. The music was seamless. It churned and twirled and was driven by Harland’s insistent and wide-ranging drumming, Raghavan’s muscular bass chops and even Eigsti playing percussive piano when not flowing up and down the keyboard. Potter would take the lead voice, blowing within the composition and improvising around. He showed his imagination and monster chops. The music would then slide to Lage, who then got the chance to add his colors. He was fiery, playing quicksilver runs over the wall of sound that were some of the most Methenyesque I’ve heard from the young guitarist. Visible was what Gary Burton saw in Lage a decade or so ago upon taking him under his wing.

Upon the completion of his statement, Eigsti would glides into the fray with both precision and polish. His energy matched the passion of his cohorts at all times. Excellent stuff. By the time the first set came to a close they were smiling, the smile of that satisfaction that comes over those who make the art. In this case–jazz–made on the spot.

Harland, who seems to play with everyone under the sun, has really got something here.

“I want to try something and I want to share with everyone who’s in this room right now. Not just allowing the music, the composition, take precedence and be something more important than the audience,” he said.

The next day, he and Raghavan went into the studio to do a trio record of John Nazarenko’s, an Albany, NY, area pianist who also teaches at Skidmore.

Harland praised Skidmore and its music program. The college not only gives young musicians a chance to learn, but they bring in good jazz musicians for performances, and also instruction. “I wish more people would support the arts,“ said the drummer. “So an artist doesn’t feel like they have to sell themselves … The true meaning of being an artist is being a artist. Being able to allow your mind to search into realms … that spiritual space. It’s been a thing throughout history that the artist has been able to breathe that energy back into the room to remind everyone this is who we are, where we come from. This is how we feel.”

He said it’s a lot harder for the artist today. “The visibility of the artist himself has been lost. They’re not able to deliver that anymore. It’s become the same old overly produced… it doesn’t offer anything. If it’s not overly produced, it’s not even thought out. The guys themselves on stage are frustrated. They’re not even in the zone, as artists, to feel free enough to allow themselves. They’re like, ‘I’ve got to do this, because if I don’t do this I won’t get enough gigs.’ It’s tricky.”

Alas. But Harland certainly breaks all that **** with this band. Creativity reigns. And his drumming is terrific, as so many band leaders know. He’s always busy playing with someone — Charles Lloyd, Josh Redman, on and on.

“I feel like the drums was just a way in. I like to think of myself as a human being first. … My greatest love is life. I have a real love for life and spirituality. Oneness. Everything that encompasses. It doesn’t necessarily mean these things are religious or anything like that. From my perspective, it’s more about just being there. Paying attention to it. Being conscious of it. I feel like playing the drums gave me an avenue for people who wanted to listen. Most people are willing to listen, you have the opportunity to say something. I’m always grateful that I’m a drummer. It’s given me the opportunity to move forward into the things I really want to do. Which is to really reach people on different levels … I think you can go on and keep trying things. It’s so vast. There’s so many things you can do.”

He’s doing them, alright.”


Now, there are all sorts of interesting things that can be explored from that post – and your interests and priorities would vary depending on whether your interests were music, cultural or spiritual. Here at the theomusicology blog, our interests are spiritual, then musical. And my question is: does the manner in which Mr. Harland talks about his spiritual beliefs actually square with biblical Christianity? Please bear in mind that I am not here to do God’s work for Him. But we are all here to examine ourselves as well as each other, and once any of us put ourselves ‘out there’ to the general public, the public has a right to take a closer look at what we say and what we do.

I’m OK with the notion that Harland sees himself as a human being before he sees himself as a drummer. That makes perfect sense on every level. I also note the fact that he wants to reach people on many different levels – which, we have to remember, is not admirable in and of itself. People with radically opposing messages can be equally committed to reaching people on different levels, so the question is: what is Mr. Harland’s message?

I’m picking up on an array of different and yet related things that Harland seems to have assembled in his spiritual oeuvre. He mentions ‘oneness’ – and in this, given that he offers no clarification, he could be seen to be reaching out to people from a range of perspectives: those who firmly believe in the ecumenical movement; those who follow the Baha’i faith; those from Eastern philosophies and ideologies who also believe in central points of unity within humanity; those who believe in the inherent divinity of humanity (which, interestingly enough, include some who say they are ‘Christian’). Out of interest,what is the difference between ‘oneness’ and ‘Oneness?’ Within English, the capital letter denotes personhood – so the next question is: are we talking about a single ontological ‘One’ or the idea of ‘One’ in all, present in multiple persons simultaneously? Or about a One who transcends humanity itself? We’ve no idea where Mr. Harland stands on this until he defines his positions much more clearly in public. But the questions are interesting in and of themselves.

Harland does go on to elaborate somewhat: “Oneness. Everything that encompasses. It doesn’t necessarily mean these things are religious or anything like that. From my perspective, it’s more about just being there. Paying attention to it. Being conscious of it.”

This is why I ask: what is the “it?” Is the ‘it’ and the ‘one’ (or One) the same thing? Different? Different but related, or not? It is interesting that he says that ‘everything that compasses’ is not necessarily religious. I can actually work with that too – he’s right. Nearly four your years ago, there was a downpour so great it flooded an area where a close friend of mine lives – and all the neighbours rushed in the area rushed to help those who were most badly affected in the immediate vicinity. This was not a ‘religious’ community. But neighbourliness was the order of the day. That’s an example of ‘something that encompasses’ that is not intrinsically religious. BUT – I would say that such neighbourliness is definitely spiritual – because folk can be spiritual in certain ways, but not be religious – and other folk can be incredibly religious and yet be deeply unspiritual!

But I will begin to mark my own position more clearly now, and say that as a person who would love to relate to Eric Harland as a fellow Christian brother as well as brother jazz musician, I am finding it rather difficult to get a sense that he and I are in the same place as people who believe in the Christian gospel as outlined in the Bible. When he says:

“From my perspective, it’s more about just being there. Paying attention to it. Being conscious of it.”

this could be interpreted in so many different ways! It could be spun one way to work for conservative Bible-believing Christians, or another to work for Christians whose theological outlook is rather more liberal, or differently for all sorts of perspectives! But I would say that for a conservative Christian, this ambiguity is more troubling than otherwise.

The troubles become more serious when one returns to this statement:

“My greatest love is life. I have a real love for life and spirituality.”

Well, it could be argued that you could be a serious Christian and say that, but I’m not sure that many Bible-believing Christians could endorse this ideology as correct for a Christian. Anyone can love life itself. Life does not have to link to spirituality – but if you choose to link them, then you still have to identify exactly what type of spirituality you are talking about!

So when Mr. Harland says that his greatest love is for life – what exactly does a reader or listener make of that?

I cannot take this too much further, because a man deserves the chance to express himself more clearly as a result of questions which I cannot ask Mr. Harland directly. But I can say that I dearly wish that this particular theologically-trained jazz musician had seen fit to be able to express his views on the gospel message more forthrightly and less ambiguously for all to know just where he stood.

As it is, the bottom line is this: as of right now: I don’t know enough about what Eric Harland believes to know if it would even be correct to call him a Christian in a true Biblical sense of the word – which means that I don’t get to call him a brother in Christ as well as jazz just yet. But I’m not here to judge. I am only here to consider. Eric Harland is a superlative drummer with a phenomenal awareness of how music work in both tangible and intangible ways – and who also possesses a great sense of the spiritual.  That is as much as we can say.

But with regards to my own output as a Bible-believing jazz musician: I am grateful for all that God has done for me – and I want to be more, do more and inspire other people to become more…spiritually as well as musically. And that means, if I follow the New Testament, that I must be much less ambiguous in how I share my faith as a jazz artist. For me, ministry comes first. Jazz comes second. And to have the opportunity for both things to co-exist in my life is an incredible privilege.

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