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Eric Harland's Voyager - 'Vipassana'

Ben Gray
Staff Writer

Eric Harland has gotten the Voyager band back together to record their follow-up to 2010's Voyager: Live By Night (and an excellent live set at 92Y Tribeca in 2011 that was recorded by NPR), and that follow-up makes up much of the new release, Vipassana. The rest of the new album is rounded out by some other things that we'll get to in due time.

The line-up on Voyager: Live By Night was Harland on drums, Harish Raghavan on bass, Taylor Eigsti on piano, Walter Smith III on sax, and Julian Lage on guitar. They're all back for Vipassana, and they are also joined on several tracks by Nir Felder's guitar and Christopher Turner's vocals. The prototypical Voyager tune contains a simple (or perhaps a deceptively simple) melody that can feel almost loopy (in the "looped up on my MPC" sense), but with enough rhythmic variation to give the tune a loopy (in the "bugged out" sense) feel. Under this melody, Eigsti's piano often adds some floating harmony while Raghavan's bass holds down the low end and Harland's drums both drive the melodic improvisations and explore all of the rhythmic spaces in between the notes. Harland doesn't swing in the classic sense of a jazz drummer playing triplets on his ride cymbal, but instead tends to chop the measure into infinitesimally small increments like a hip-hop producer on speed. This lets his drums interact with the melodic improvisation in the same way, essentially, that the prototypical swinging jazz drummer would (and I'm not saying here that Harland can't swing - check him out with, for example, SFJAZZ Collective - I'm just saying that this seems to be his preferred mode of drumming with Voyager). This sort of tune shows up in many places on Vipassana - "Raghavan", "Singularis", "Anjou", and "Capacity", to name a few. On these tunes, the interaction between the sax and guitar lines is critical, and Lage and Smith find a way to make these melodies soar, pulling out variation after variation on the basic themes. These tunes often feel like extended jams built around relatively spare heads, but this band makes it work, with more than enough improvisational ability to keep it interesting and more than enough feeling to really dig in. "Raghavan" is maybe the most successful of these tunes here, with a melody that will stick in your head, a drum freak-out in the middle, and great improvisation all around.

Besides the songs mentioned above, Vipassana also contains quite a few tracks (often those featuring Turner's vocals) that venture into new territory that this band didn't explore on their debut album. Some of these are very hip-hop oriented - say, "VI", which is built on top of a super-ill drumbreak from Harland and super-ill bassline from Raghavan, with Eigsti's piano floating on top and what sounds like a string sample (though this may also be a keyboard string patch). There is some precedent for this jam on Eric Harland's Basement, an EP that had been available for some time on Bandcamp, but appears to have been taken offline now. There are also some neo-soul-ish things, including "Relax", which opens the album with Turner's vocals going to places that Bilal's did on Robert Glasper's Mood (the accepted adjective for this sound is "ethereal"). There is some groovy rock-oriented stuff - if you've got a favorite version of "Mike's Song", you should find a lot to like about "Dhyana". And then there is a pair of tunes right in the middle of the album, "Normal" and "Greene", that go for a straightforward alternative rock sound and just don't fit at all . Treat these as you would "Rock and Roll" from Mos Def's Black on Both Sides album (i.e., remove them from your iPod playlist) and you'll do just fine.

All told, Vipassana is a very satisfying album, with plenty of the rhythmic complexity that you'd expect to keep the drum heads happy and more than enough melodic improvisation from the guitar(s), piano, and sax to make this a great modern jazz album. Whether this is a transitional album that leads to more neo-soul/hip-hop oriented tunes, or whether the band continues to build on the sound that they established on Voyager: Live by Night remains to be seen - it will be interesting to see how these tunes are played out live. We should get an answer to that question this September, when the Voyager band has three shows scheduled:

September 23 - Regattabar, Boston, MA
September 25 and 26 - Arthur Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College, Sinking Springs, NY

Meanwhile, check out some samples from the album over at Eric Harland's website, and pre-order yourself a copy before its August 11 release date.

Vipassana Trailer:

Eric Harland Voyager's VIPASSANA Trailer 1 from Eric Harland on Vimeo.