Harris Eisenstadt: Freedom in Structure

Troy Collins

Canada Day, Korzo, Brooklyn, October 2011                                                              ©Jim Newberry 2012

Canadian-born composer/percussionist Harris Eisenstadt was once the consummate “rootless cosmopolitan,” but after a long-term residency on the West Coast and repeated trips to Chicago and West Africa (to study traditional African drumming), he relocated to New York, where he and his wife, bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck, recently had their first child, Owen. Setting down family roots is paralleled by his current choice of projects; rather than working in ad hoc collectives, Eisenstadt has focused on three ensembles: the impressionistic September Trio with Ellery Eskelin and Angelica Sanchez; the neo-classical nonet Woodblock Prints; and Canada Day, formed in 2007. Featuring trumpet player Nate Wooley, tenor saxophonist Matt Bauder, vibraphonist Chris Dingman and new bassist Garth Stevenson (replacing Eivind Opsvik), Canada Day has become Eisenstadt’s flagship group; they have the skills needed to navigate the unorthodox frameworks and intricate rhythms of his compositions, embellish his memorable melodies with rich harmonies, and explore discordant textures.

A pair of concurrently released albums presents two different facets of the unit’s expressive capabilities. Canada Day III is the third installment in Eisenstadt’s ongoing exploration of the quintet’s inside-outside proclivities. Eisenstadt uses several rhythmic devices to underpin his intricately structured themes – modulating tempos (“Settled” and “The Magician of Lublin”), syncopated rhythms (“Slow and Steady”) and alternating time signatures (“Shuttle off this Mortal Coil”). Bauder and Wooley’s use of contrasting textures counterbalances the accessibility of Eisenstadt’s writing. Wooley’s coruscating introduction to “Nosey Parker” and Bauder’s roiling duet with the leader on the coda of “The Magician of Lublin” are notable highlights.

Canada Day Octet augments the core line-up with veteran trombonist Ray Anderson, alto saxophonist Jason Mears and tuba player Dan Peck. The expanded horn section enables Eisenstadt to develop choral harmonies and layered counterpoint, which brings a subtle African character to bear on the proceedings, more reminiscent of his horn-driven records Jalolu (CIMP) and Guewel (Clean Feed) than the Western oriented program presented on Canada Day III. The invited guests are each given ample time in the spotlight; Anderson shines particularly bright in this setting, his ribald avant-blues testimonials being perfectly suited to this brass-heavy environment. Peck and Mears contribute exceptional statements of their own accord, with the tuba player’s multiphonic brass ululations and the saxophonist’s quicksilver bop cadences perfectly integrated into the fabric of the core quintet.

Intrigued by both the subtle differences and the similarities shared by these two releases, I interviewed Eisenstadt in July 2012 about his concepts and methods.


Troy Collins: In your younger days, you initially concentrated on performing freely improvised music, yet Canada Day and other recent projects are far more structured; do you have any thoughts about this gradual transition?

Harris Eisenstadt: I was drawn to the democratic/socialistic principles that exist in free music. I wasn’t so interested in jazz orthodoxy/hierarchy… yet the other extreme – anarchy – always seemed too much. Before discovering free improvisation (and even before that, Coltrane/Miles), I grew up with pretty regular tastes… classic rock and all that. But after falling in love with Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, I found my way to other 1960s/70s innovators who embraced the jazz drumming tradition but also found inspiration from other sources… traditional world music, contemporary classical music… Cyrille/Rashied/Milford at the same time as Oxley/Lovens/Lytton/Bennink… and then discovered Barry Altschul’s work with Bley/Rivers/Braxton, who particularly attracted me because of his ability to play completely texturally one moment and swing deeply the next. All these drummer/percussionist approaches influenced my playing and led me away from overt emphasis on straightforward groove playing, but exposure to Ghanaian drumming and dance at Calarts 1999-2001 re-ignited my interest in an explicitly rhythmic concept, and two 6-week research trips to Africa (2003, 2007) studying traditional drumming cemented this.

As for the impetus to deal with a more structured approach to composition, falling in love with polyrhythm has influenced my writing as much as my playing. Setting melodic and harmonic materials within overlapping rhythmic cycles (to varying degrees of simplicity or complexity) accounts for a lot of my compositional output for several years. Having said that, my writing isn’t always like this; the material for September Trio (with Angelica Sanchez and Ellery Eskelin) ends up being quite wide open and less fixed than Canada Day or other larger projects like Woodblock Prints or Canada Day Octet.

TC: Compared to your other current bands, this quintet boasts far more conventional instrumentation and a traditional approach towards writing; was this a deliberate decision, or a matter of happenstance?

HE: It’s true that Canada Day has been my main group since 2007 and continues to be. My goal with Canada Day was to assemble an ensemble of (fairly) conventional instrumentation and make it sound unconventional. So yes, it was deliberate.

TC: Do you typically follow the Ellingtonian model of writing parts specifically geared towards your bandmates strengths, or do you have a more hands-off attitude, ala Miles and Mingus?

HE: This is an interesting question, and something I just spoke about in an interview on The Jazz Session, though as I’ve listened back to the interview I’m not sure I was as clear as I meant to be. I described it as a kind of chicken-and-egg situation, where it’s actually difficult to say which idea comes first when generating material. Are the notes conceived with the musician in mind or are they first written then molded to the ensemble? I sketch ideas at the piano and flesh them out there, dump then into Sibelius and keep editing. Sometimes I start a piece for Canada Day and it turns into music for September Trio. Some of the material originally sketched then discarded for my first orchestral work, “Palimpsest” (performed in 2011), ended up re-cast as songs for Canada Day III. Of course the musicians I work with are in mind when I write… I’m jut not sure it stops me from writing anything in particular. If something isn’t right for one situation, it may be right for another. I know what it is about certain musicians’ sounds that I love, so that’s in mind when writing, but I’m a universalist in the end and want (most) things that I write to be played. While my compositional language might be more conventional than my teacher, Wadada Leo Smith, I draw great inspiration from the fact that he has written many pieces that can be played by any instrumentation and ensemble size. There’s a conceptual generosity that I admire, a sense of flexibility that means that a composition can exist in many different forms and be performed in a variety of contexts.

TC: As you state in your liner notes for Canada Day III, “Slow and Steady” features half the band phrasing in four, while the other half phrases in six, switching roles twice throughout the piece. The end result sounds effortless, yet how difficult is it to actually achieve this and how natural does it feel to perform once you’ve mastered it?

HE: That piece was also recorded by Convergence Quartet (Alexander Hawkins, Dominic Lash, and Taylor Ho Bynum) and is a good example of the kind of flexibility I discussed in the previous question. Both ensembles had the opportunity to play “Slow and Steady” every night for a couple weeks, so in each set the band internalized the piece and it felt pretty effortless by the end. In both instances though, it took some getting used to – particularly for Convergence Quartet. Since “Slow and Steady” was written as a quintet piece, Alex had to essentially cover two parts in the quartet arrangement, which he did admirably.

TC: Despite the number of tunes that rely on intricate rhythmic strategies, most of your harmonic writing for Canada Day (including the Octet) is extremely melodic, whereas quite a few of your contemporaries tend to compose far more oblique themes. What are your thoughts behind this sort of balancing act?

HE: I often tend to gravitate towards some kind of lyricism, however overt or abstract the melodic or harmonic content might be. Not always, though, and it’s a process that also has evolved over the years. Recent output may have something to do with studies in harmony and counterpoint over the past 3 or 4 years with a fantastic teacher in New York, Paul Caputo… studying the progressions in Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony and strict Renaissance species counterpoint. It’s not that I write music using that material, but the processes kind of seep in after awhile. Having said that, I’m a great fan of oblique harmony and melody (particularly Messiaen and Takemitsu). I guess my writing reconciles love of both ends of the spectrum – from the simplest triadic formations to the densest clusters.

TC: The pairing of Matt Bauder and Nate Wooley in the quintet makes a particularly expressive front-line capable of extreme textural detours. What inspires you to juxtapose abstract sound improvisations with conventional melody and harmony?

HE: As per the previous answer, this is really a central preoccupation in my concept as a composer, bandleader, and instrumentalist. It’s what inspired me early on when I discovered records like Conference of the Birds – Barry Altschul’s playing alongside Dave Holland’s deceptively simple, beautiful themes, earthy sound, and Rivers’/Braxton’s lyrical abstractions.

It’s interesting to think about the different strategies of approaching composition for improvising ensemble versus Western contemporary/classical ensemble. With an interpreter (versus improviser), the “textural detours” you mention better be specified in the score if you hope to hear them in the limited rehearsal time you’ll get. By contrast with an improvising ensemble, the detours come from the improvisers’ extrapolations of the materials… the less-is-more effect. This also relates back to the chicken-and-egg nature of the composing-for-personalities question… i.e. Wooley’s and Bauder’s detours are their own.

As to the strategy of including “abstract sound improvisations” within more conventional melody/harmony… my early and continued embrace of open improvisation continues to evolve and will likely never disappear. I see it as another way of creating texture… solo spaces with and without accompaniment, full ensemble written passages, open improvised cadenzas – there are places for these and as many other strategies as possible if they fit holistically within the composition.

TC: An ombudsman is “a trusted representative who communicates back and forth between a governing body and the general public.” You’ve named the titular four part suite on Canada Day Octet “The Ombudsman,” claiming that you see yourself as an advocate mediating between “those in favor of creative music and those mystified by it.” Do you feel a responsibility towards your audience to provide a recognizable entrance into the music’s more esoteric concepts, or do you just get more personal satisfaction working with elements culled from the tradition?

HE: I actually was hoping the suite “The Ombudsman” would act as the advocate on my behalf! I’d rather have the music speak for itself, but I acknowledge that it is also quite helpful to contextualize. I would say that I feel a responsibility towards the audience to share the experience with them. I don’t necessary feel a personal satisfaction with conventional elements… but I can only write and perform in contexts that feel authentic to me… well, mostly! Besides, I’m not sure there are any elements not culled from the tradition at this point. Multiple interpretations of tradition have become quite expansive, thankfully.

TC: You’ve also said that the inclusion of emotionally direct melodies and straightforward forms on some of the tunes from Canada Day II were directly inspired by the birth of your first child. How has fatherhood affected your writing since then?

HE: This is an interesting question. I was on the road as we were doing most of this interview and hadn’t seen my son for almost two weeks. I missed him (and my wife) immensely, but knew they were doing fine (at my in-law’s, actually, having a ball) and would see them in a few days. I’m not sure how fatherhood has explicitly influenced by writing, but I know that I’m maybe a touch less sentimental than in the first months after our son was born. Also, I’m less exhausted and have more time for writing, practicing, and studying than I did a couple years ago. I feel very fortunate to spend a lot of time with my family, which inspires my creative work indirectly and in varied ways.

TC: What are some of the musical inspirations behind Canada Day? For example, the opening number on Canada Day III, “Slow and Steady” seems to evoke Gil Evans’ cinematic arrangement of “Concierto De Aranjuez,” from Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960), albeit as heard refracted through a carnival funhouse mirror. Was this accidental or intentional and are there any other subtle inspirations undergirding your pieces?

HE: It’s funny, some of the songs on Canada Day III were inspired by literary and cinematic figures (Shakespeare, Isaac Bashevis Singer. Michael Kitchen from Foyle’s War), but not in any explicit way… more likely that books and TV drama seeped into my unconscious probably! Gil Evans is of course an inspiration but not specifically with “Slow and Steady.” I was mostly studying Ravel’s “Rapsodie Espagnole” and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” as well as the contemporary composer Christopher Rouse’s “Gorgon” when writing the orchestra piece that “Slow and Steady” grew out of.

TC: The closing ballad from Canada Day III is “King of the Kutiriba (for Mamady Danfa).” Having extensively studied African drumming, how does it figure in the conventional jazz instrumentation of the Canada Day quintet, compared to your horn-driven quintet (documented on Jalolu and Guewel) and the massed horns of the Octet?

HE: African and Diaspora rhythmic concepts (polyrhythms in their infinite incarnations) don’t necessarily figure as explicitly into Canada Day as they did into Jalolu and Guewel, but those influences figure heavily into my playing and writing nonetheless, via inspiration/gesture/sensibility.

TC: You’ve said in earlier interviews that you find gigging and touring to be the best way to prepare a band for a recording session, not vice-versa, where a recording is merely a document of a performance. What are your thoughts on putting together such thoroughly conceived album statements in a genre where spontaneity is typically prized over practice and rehearsal?

HE: I don’t think spontaneity is sacrificed at all with the tour-then-record model. And I don’t think a recording of a nice performance is “merely a document” – in fact, I think it can yield great results with the right circumstances – i.e. great-sounding room, great recording gear, great gig/vibe can equal great record… Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard as an example. I just feel like the goal with composed/improvised music is to integrate spontaneity with set materials as much as possible. Touring a book of music helps immensely with this, as it’s difficult to string together gigs. We are way past the period when bands play multi-week residencies. A gig per month qualifies as a working band these days, and that can mean it takes a long time to really internalize a book of music and cultivate a group sound. So a week or two on the road after a year of periodic gigs is a pretty comprehensive way to get the music ready to document.

TC: What are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially in regards to archival hard copies versus ephemeral downloads?

HE: This is the big question for all of us, right? I just got back from two weeks in Canada with François Houle’s new group. He had a new CD out just in time for the tour, and sold a bunch from the stage each night. We all sold some of our own CDs too. Canada Day had a North American tour in the spring and I think I sold about 60 CDs in ten gigs. I recently re-did my website and included a PayPal store; I’ve sold a bunch of CDs just in the first two months. All that is to say there’s the practical reason for CDs. It seems that our audience is of the boutique variety, the same kind of listener as I have been – we want to see a beautiful cover, read some insightful liner notes, hold the thing in our hands.

And from the perspective of the composer/bandleader, each of my CDs (and vinyl, once) represents a marker in time, a tangible document of my work in that period. I’m all for the convenience of downloads (and admit to an entry level Emusic subscription which, along with colleagues who give me their CDs, represents most of my music acquisition these days), but cannot wrap my head around the idea of releasing something as a download only. In addition to CD or vinyl, sure, but not exclusively… seems like at least in our world few people are really ready for that.

Unfortunately downloads and pirating make it harder to sell CDs, adding to the glut of self-released recordings already. These factors (and others) combine to make it harder for labels to release CDs. I can’t state emphatically enough how fortunate I feel to have labels that believe in and want to document my work.

TC: Are there any current non-jazz based bands or artists you’ve been interested in lately, and/or more pertinently, if any of them have influenced your current writing?

HE: I’m usually listening to other things besides jazz, actually: most recently – and as always – lots of world music (Mbaye Dieye Faye, recordings of Cuban Bata, brass bands from Jaipur, Benin and New Orleans, Cumbia from Chile), and some jazz records from colleagues (Benoit Delbecq, François Houle).

As to how they all influence my writing, that’s difficult to say in any direct way… more as constant sources of varied inspiration. They do so alongside extra-musical inspirations – nature, architecture, literature, film and television.

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