The long wait on a cold and rainy Melbourne Sunday night for the first session of US drummer Eric Harland’s Voyager concert was worth it. Once inside the sold out Bennetts Lane Jazz Lab, the audience climbed aboard for an intergalactic trip powered by the man described as the ‘drummer’s drummer’.
Harland did not so much lead as, together with the anchor of bassist Harish Raghavan, create an unstoppable rolling groove with the other gifted members of the band, steering a sonic spaceship on an exploration of musical galaxies.
Playing a continuous suite of compositions from Harland’sdebut release, Voyager Live By Night, and his most recent album, Vipassana (a meditation technique meaning to ‘see in a special way’), the band created waves of sound that swooped and soared with the virtuoso guitar of Julian Lagewashing up in the soothing tonal saxophone of Walter Smith. Playing double snares and bass drums at times, and hand shakers, Harland created dense rhythmic textures that were always moving forward. Solos and interplay between pianist Taylor Eigisti and Lage signaled shifts into new numbers in a manner so fresh and unexpected that it seemed they were composing on stage.
The music was by turn powerful, heroic and ethereal, conjuring up images of blasting into space and floating among far-flung constellations. Direction changes were initiated by the piano, guitar or saxophone above the surging and responsive rhythms of drums and bass. When it came time for the inevitable drum solo (the concert overall was a master class in itself), the melodic power and joy of Harland’s playing was breathtaking. Throughout the show Harland was a picture of intuitive concentration and joy – his attention focused on each member of the band.
For over 90 minutes these consummate musicians (Eigisti, Lage and Smith are all band leaders in their own right) explored the outer and inner spaces of Voyager and Vipassana including Treachery, Voyager, Eclipse, Relax, Anjou and Singularis plus an encore that gently returned the transformed audience to earth. An hour later they were doing it all over again in their second set of the night. As Harland said in his tribute to the laid back friendliness of Australians, “we’re workaholics.”