Upcoming Canadian drummer and composer Harris Eisenstadt has rung the changes with each successive release so far. His sixth outing as leader, All Seeing Eye + Octets (Poobah, 2007), is not a departure in that sense only. Intriguingly, it combines a re-imagining of the Wayne Shorter Blue Note suite of the same name, with two of his own chamber jazz pieces. Eisenstadt has proven himself winningly at home in a wide range of settings, from free improv groups to large ensembles, with musicians as diverse as Sam Rivers, Bobby Bradford, Jeb Bishop, Rob Brown, Vinny Golia, John Butcher and Paul Rutherford. At his house in a quiet Jersey City street, we talked about his recent trip to Africa, his latest and previous releases, and more.
- West African Journey
- Blog: Tie a Bow Not a Knot
- The All Seeing Eye + Octets
- The Players
- The Octets
- Compositional Concepts
- The Zone
- The Soul and Gone
- The Diplomats
- The Convergence Quartet
- Making A Life Doing What I Love To Do
- Future Plans
West African Journey
All About Jazz: You've just come back from almost a month in Senegal and Gambia. I saw some video clips from your trip on your blog, and it sounds like you had a great time.
Harris Eisenstadt: I did. I actually was there five weeks altogether. I got back yesterday morning, and I'm not as out of it as I thought I would be. It's actually my second longish trip there. First time I came back, I was really turned around for a few weeks. But yeah, it was fantastic. I think things like blogging, taking short videos, and having a lot of communication this time with people back home and friends and stuff might account for why it feels a bit different now.
The first time I was there for two months in 2002 and 2003, it was in Gambia, at a place where there was no internet connection. There was in town, and I would use it to e-mail once every couple of days. But I was online a lot this time, and I was in Dakar, which is a big city, for the majority of the trip. Although it is certainly Africa and not the same as here, it just felt a very culturally-alive city and a bustling Westernized sort of spot. I don't feel as out of step with Western culture this time coming back as I thought I would. But it was fantastic.
I was there for a "Meet the Composer project, which is an American granting organization, part of the Ford Foundationone of the few longstanding arts foundations that there are here. I did a project with my friend Willow Williamson, a composer from LA. We did this project with some filmmakers out there. We did some workshops on film scoring, collaboration between different disciplines, and the goal was to do a performance with live video and improvisation, but none of the filmmakers was familiar with the idea of live video as an improvisational tool, so we talked more about film scoring techniques than any kind of multimedia improvisation. As with Africa, things happen kind of slowly, but surely [laughs]. We had a very ambitious project, and we got as much of it done as we could and had a good time.
AAJ: And you took in lots of music as well, while you were there.
HE: I did. That was a kind of consolation in a way. I tried to make sure to catch as much music as I couldtraditional music as well as the kind of highlife that's going on there. Dakar is a popping city, full of clubs with different bands playing all the time and all those short clips [on the blog] of those different bandsit's not as much as in New York or London of course, but it's like there are lots of things to go hear every night if you want.
So I was curious to see what was going on in that scene, because in other less major cities in West Africa, there are highlife bands everywhere, like in Gambia they play in the hotels for the tourists. I didn't really take that in at all while I was there, so this time I was kind of curious to seebecause Dakar has this reputation as a cultural centerwhat was going on with Senegalese music. Mbalax, which is the main style of Senegalese pop music, then they have a sort of Senegalese salsa, totally inspired and informed by Cuban music when it came over there in the fifties and sixties a very rich and diverse musical culture.
AAJ: It's cross-fertilized as well, so it's gone backwards and forwards across the Atlantic.
HE: Exactly. It's fascinating. I mean the amount of African reggae that's happening now and that's been going on also for decades in Africa since Bob Marley, right? And now the hip-hop that's got started there in the last twenty years too. Young kids there don't care any more about Senegalese salsa or even a lot of older seventies Mbalax. They're into American hip-hop, Senegalese hip-hop and the newest, most popular Mbalax bands.
It's just interesting to see how fast things happen in a certain way, the back and forth and borrowing from transculturationan ethnomusicologist's or anthropologist's term for what is going on. So the music leaves Africa and comes to the New World. All these different spots develop over hundreds of years, and it comes back there within the last sixty years, and so much has influenced them so quickly. Simultaneously, they're moving ahead very, very fast, but also West Africa is stuck as always. It's a very complicated place and a very rich place, culturally.
AAJ: After your trip to Gambia in 2003, you recorded Jalolu (CIMP, 2004), which was inspired by your experiences. Might there be a similarly inspired project as a result of this trip?
HE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think there will be, and I have to say, all these years since fall 2003 when we recorded it, it's been some three-and-a-half years, and that band hasn't played since that record. I kind of felt it was a project that was deeply connected with the time that I spent there. I just figured that I would be going back again, hopefully, and I've had the chance, so something is in the works for September.
The project is called "Gewel, which is the Wolof word for griot, just like jail, or jalolu [plural] is the Mandinka word for griot. So it will be a little bit more informed by the Senegalese music or Wolof music, which is the major ethnic group in Senegal. More informed by the Sabar drumming, which is Wolof and some of the Senegalese pop music. So it'll be with a few horns, guitars, bass and drums, with one or two other percussionists. It won't sound exactly like Jalolu, to be sure, but similarly inspired by what I can come up with. I'm looking forward to it. I haven't been in Chicago since the Wire Festival a couple of years ago. Just trying to get venues and details worked out. And now it looks like I'm going to do a new version of Jalolu in New York in August at The Stone as well, so I guess I'll be revisiting an old project, albeit with all new music.
AAJ: I really enjoyed the Jalolu record. That was a great one. I loved all the hocketing and overlapping horns.
HE: A bunch of cacophony for sure.
AAJ: [laughs] That's what I like. Interesting though, apart from that album, I don't hear obvious African influences in your playing, yet they are clearly important to you. So how do they manifest themselves in your playing and your composing?
HE: That's a good question. It's not always so overt. I think larger issues that I'm inspired by in West African music, like the combination of hierarchy and democracy that happens in ensembles there, is something that I was trying to go for with Jalolu, but I would say informs all my writing. That combination of written materials, or whatever sort of structures that everyone in the band has, and the improvisation that goes with it, is so exactly how things work in any kind of traditional drum ensemble, say in Senegal, Gambia, probably 99% of drum cultures in Africa. I mean there are signature rhythms and pieces that a drummer has to know, and once that clave or rhythmic skeleton or key is internalized, the possibilities are endless, or at least wide open. It's like there is a context for what you are doing, and within that context you can do anything.
So I don't know how that directly relates to free improvising: it's a different ball game in a way, because when you explicitly begin with no structure, then the results are going to be different than when you begin with something. They are both interesting to me, so not to say that when there is some kind of structure, it is African related, and when there isn't, it isn't. But I can intellectualize the connection easier when there is some structure. Because free improvising in Africa, or that is to say improvising without any kind of predetermined anything, I haven't come across. There's always a context.
AAJ: We both saw Braxton's Sextet+1 last night. In some ways what you are talking about sounds like an ancestor, in that the music is going along but can change tracks within the overall framework at the behest of any of the individual musicians.
HE: Right, it's an amazing thing. I only wonder why it doesn't make more sense to more people, because it makes perfect sense to me. Braxton's music is like the perfect model of democratic interaction. You know, it's like, lets all get along, let's all respect each other...it's like the Bundersrat in Switzerland or something. It's like, let's not have one person in power for too long, let's all share a respect for each other, a respect for the music. I think a lot of people who have been inspired by Braxton try to emulate that in whatever way they can manifest that in their own work. Yeah, it's a beautiful thing to watch it happen live, especially when he plays that contrabass saxophone.
AAJ: Wow, that is really something.
HE: That's like he gets to be the President for as long as he wants [laughs]. class="f-right s-img">
Blog: Tie a Bow Not a Knot
AAJ: Everyone else sits back and waits. Now to change track, you are one of an increasing number of musicians who now has an active blog [Tie a Bow Not a Knot], and I think it is a very positive development to hear the musicians' perspectives. Why did you start it, and how do you find the time to keep it going?
HE: Good questions. I definitely a year ago would have been like, blogs? I knew what they were, but I just wasn't that. I don't know, man, it wasn't taking up much time or thought processes. But a combination of Taylor Ho Bynum and Kris Tiner, both good friends and great cornet/trumpet players who have excellent blogs, the two of them kind of sayingnot simultaneously and just sort of like hearing little things, then it finally connectedboth of them saying the same thing in different ways: I do this because I'm a musician and I want to take control, not only of my music but having musicians have a say in regard to other people's music, in regard to other disciplines, in whatever they want to talk about really, inasmuch as they are intelligent people and coherent writers hopefully. And I think it is an excellent resource for musicians to be able to articulate their ideas.
Journalists do fulfill a really important function, you really do, but for a long time now, maybe forever, there has been an imbalance in discourse. I think musician-run blogs, just like journalist-run blogs, like anyone's blog, it's just a way of blossoming the field and letting more perspectives be readily available. So when I finally took Taylor's and Kris's ideas to heart, I was kind of simultaneously realizing, well I'm about to go on a trip back to Africa. Last time all I had to show for it was, well, lots of stuff, but piles of pictures, still photographs, personal diaries, e-mails I sent to friends and family, but not a running commentary for myself and anyone interested as it happened. So it was that double-edged thing of, hey, my friends are right, we musicians should be writing more about our own work, and also, I don't want this opportunity go by.
I doubt I'll be blogging as often as I was for those five weeks, but I'm sure it will continue, because I find it cathartic and it's nice to interact with people in that kind of a forum. People can post comments if they want or send you a note if what you wrote interested them. I've also been reading a lot more blogs since I've been writing as well.
AAJ: Your blogs from West Africa were well linked on the blogosphere, which is how I came across them.
HE: That's nice to see. Because if it is remotely coherent and interesting enough subject matter, then whether it's about Africa or any number of interesting things, anything is fair game. It is an easy and excellent way to learn, for us all to share information, and I'm for more and more of it, so let's see what happens.
The All Seeing Eye + Octets
AAJ: Let's talk about your latest recording then, your sixth recording as leader: The All Seeing Eye + Octets, which combines a re-imagining of the Wayne Shorter Blue Note recording of the same name with two of your own compositions. How did that come about?
HE: It was a recording I made in Los Angeles last summer right before moving. As it turned out, it was my final project while living there. I lived in LA for six years before I moved back to New York. For years The All Seeing Eye (Blue Note, 1965) has been, for one reason or another, it was one of the first records, along with A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965) and E.S.P. (CBS, 1965) and all of these kind of much, much more well known albums of '60s jazz, that made a big impression. In this case, it was one of the first records that totally turned me around. I never really knew why at the time. I also loved Adam's Apple (Blue Note, 1966) and Speak No Evil (Blue Note, 1964), The Soothsayer (Blue Note, 1965) and Juju (Blue Note, 1964) and all these killer Wayne Blue Notes.
But there was something just so elusive and so mysterious about The All Seeing Eye, and I think in retrospect, it's because of the orchestration and the sense of space on that record is to me unique to any of Wayne's music. I guess there are other examples from the time that are somewhat similar, and I know with his more recent quartet, there's a modular quality to his music now that maybe wasn't there for a long time. But there's something harmonically and kind of form-wise about that record in particular. And frankly it was that ballad "Face of the Deep, the fourth track on that recordthe harmonies just imprinted themselves in my brain.
I kinda tossed around the idea of making a cover record for a long time. I've only ever recorded my own compositions so far, and I thought the timing was right. Then in the process of doing that, I realized that I had this great band. The label was this hip-hop label in LA called Poobah Records. We were fortunate enough to have a decent budget and be in Paramount Studios, which is a wonderful, beautiful, old LA Hollywood studiotons of wood and carpet, strange angles, incredible live room. And we were in there and I knew we were going to have this long day, and I didn't think it was going to take all day to get these tracks down. So we had a couple of rehearsals and a warm-up gig before the recording.
In the process of that, I called up a friend of mine, Marc Lowenstein, a great conductor in Los Angeles, who teaches at CalArts where I went some years ago, and said, would you mind conducting these two chamber octets of mine as well? I have this great band, I have this recording time, I'd like to get them down toojust see how it all sounds in the end. And as it turned out, it seemed like the two of them, those chunks of music together, made for a nice satisfying listen. If you see a composer's record where there's a symphony on the first half for thirty minutes and some kind of chamber works for twenty minutes, it's kind of how I conceived this record as two big chunks of music to probably be listened to in two separate parts.
AAJ: You can listen to it all at once. I have done that, and I thought the pieces worked well together, perhaps because of using almost the same instrumentation. But you don't think "what's this? at the juncture of the two parts.
HE: That's good. Thank you.
AAJ: Your record must be a bit of a departure for a hip-hop label?
HE: Well Poobah is not just a hip-hop label. Actually it turns out they have a bunch of different stuff. Poobah is a great record store in LA as well as a label, and they do in-store concerts of jazz and improvised music. It's just one of the many kinds of music that they champion. They have lots of Nine Winds and Tzadik and other labels in their store, as well as a bunch of boutique kind of hip-hop too. It's not coming out on Snoop Dogg's label [laughs]. Hopefully it will be relevant still. class="f-right s-img">
AAJ: Tell me about the players and their roles on the recording. Most of them aren't known to me, and I assume they are LA-based.
HE: Yes. Everybody on there is LA-based. Scott Walton, the bassist, actually lives in San Diegoa great bassist I've known for some years out there. There's a nice small scene in San Diego. There's a collective called Trummerflora that he's a part of. So Scott is the bassist. Chris Dingman is the vibraphonist. He actually lived here for a few years and just went out to LA to do a Masters at the Monk Institute, which is very hard to get intoa small program in the University of Southern California.
AAJ: As in Thelonious Monk?
HE: Yeah, the Monk Institute. It's run by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, at least in name. But it's hand-picked people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, some of the best young jazz players in the world. Chris is a great vibes player and also a very creative vibes player, a great jazz player, but also a very fantastic, creative player. Sara Schoenbeck on bassoon, who plays in the Braxton 12tet, and is my wife actually. So she will hopefully be living in New York soon.
AAJ: She's in LA still at the moment?
HE: Yeah. We've been doing the back and forth. It hasn't been easy, but hopefully we're coming to the end of our two-city dance. Brian Walsh and Andrew Pask both play clarinet and bass clarinet. They are both LA-based, work with Vinny Golia, a whole litany of LA folks. Steuart Liebig, a great bassist/composer, uses them and all kinds of LA musicians on various projects. Daniel Rosenboom plays trumpet. He's actually the son of David Rosenboom, who is a well-known pioneering electronic composerwell, multimedia artist really. He's actually dean of the music school at CalArts; that's where I met him and Daniel, his son, this young trumpet playera nice guy and a good player. There's a second trumpet player on the octets, Aaron Smith, also a great trumpet player from out there. I met Aaron and Dan actually when we did a concert with Vinny Golia's large ensemble in April 06, about a year ago. So that's two trumpets, two clarinets, bassoon, vibes, bass and drums, and my friend Marc Lowenstein who conducted the octets.
AAJ: So talking about the Wayne Shorter piece, the instrumentation is different, obviously, to the original. Was that because you had those instruments in mind for the octets, or did you want to change the instrumentation for the suite anyway?
HE: I suppose both. I never wanted to try to make a sixties Blue Note-sounding tribute album. I couldn't.
AAJ: What's the point?
HE: Exactly. Who's going to play like Joe Chambers except Joe Chambers? Who's going to play like James Spaulding except James Spaulding? I very much envisioned it as a more chamberish, gentler somehow, record. In some ways there is still a lot of fierce playing, and some of those tunes, we took them at those burning tempos they recorded them at. That's where they're at, and they sound good like that you know, and there is also plenty of open space. There's a whole range of dynamics, but as far as instrumentation, I wanted to get away from a jazz septet sort of sound with three or four horns, piano, bass and drums. So the chamber thing, rather than saxophones and trombone. Clarinet, bass clarinet and bassoonI kind of went for that. I love the sound of clarinets, and bassoon of course. I just love the sound of that much wood blending as inner voices. They really work well together.
And then vibraphone instead of piano. I must beI am I guessa frustrated vibes player. I have a set right over there [points]. Not a frustrated one, just not very good. I just love the instrument very much and work with vibes players whenever I can, because I love its skeletal, sheer quality that I think is difficult to find on the piano sometimes. You have too many options; you have a whole orchestra in front of you. Vibraphone, you have at most four fingers to work with instead of ten, and very often two. And so there is a sort of "spareness that I've always loved about that instrument, although people sometimes complain that vibraphone doesn't blend, and sometimes they are right. I think in this context it actually balanced the metal and wood combination in the ensemble nicely. There were these three rich, rich woodwinds and then one or two trumpets. It needed just a little more metal to balance the scales, so that was the reason for the instrumentation. class="f-right s-img">
AAJ: In addition to the reworking of the Wayne Shorter suite, the record includes the two chamber jazz octets pieces, and those pieces combine melodic chamber music sections with more rhythmic, sometimes jazzier, sections as well, although still melodic. Both pieces are multi-sectioned.
HE: Yeah. "Without Roots is three six minute sections and "What We Were Told is also in three sections. There are several kinds of episodic sections, so I think aurally, for one's ears, it's easier to listen in three movements.
AAJ: What were your inspirations for these two pieces?
HE: It's a fair question. They were both originally large ensemble pieces. "What We Were Told was commissioned by the American Composers Forum, and we premiered it (I have a large ensemble called Ahimsa Orchestra). The first edition was a New York group in '03, then we did a Bay Area version in '04, and an LA version in '05, and there is a Nine Winds Record that has a piece from the Bay Area and the LA versions. Then this commission was for another Bay Area version of it for a residency in an elementary school actually. We played this music for a bunch of kids and they dug it. They were such a great, open-eared audience. It was a fun residency. So it was a large ensemble piece that I wrote in January '06. Then I arranged it for this octet in the summer, when I saw I had this instrumentation, and I thought this piece would work nicely as an octet as well.
"Without Roots was commissioned by SOCAN, the Society of Canadian Authors and Publishers, which is like the ASCAP or BMI music publishing company in Canada. There's an organization called the Upstream Music Association that does a festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia called the Sonic Courage Festival. This was in June of last year . So it was a large ensemble commission for that program, and then I orchestrated it for octet as well.
Actually there is a nice recording from that festival too, that the Canadian Broadcasting Company made of the piece, but it is very prohibitively expensive to get the rights for release from the CBC. They make these incredible multi-track recordings of their commissions, and they show up at the concert with mobile recording truck and thirty mics and five engineers. Incredible state of the art live recording facility and then they just put it in their archive.
They play it on the CBC contemporary music program, and that's cool, but I had such mixed feelings about that because I listened back to the gigthey gave me a copy but I just can't release it legallyand when I heard it, I thought I should just really orchestrate this for this octet, because this thing is coming up, and it was the same thing as with "What We Were Told : Here is this instrumentation with which I think it would work. "What We Were Told originally was for sixteen instruments, and "Without Roots was twenty-one. So they were certainly reductions of the full orchestrations, but we get pretty close to what those pieces originally were.
AAJ: There were two parts of "What We Were Told that particularly struck me for their melodic material. One sounds very Americana-ish, with just the horns, quite open. And there is another part that is almost South African in feel; it brought to mind one of those early Dollar Brand piano feelings, with almost a kwela sound to it.
HE: Sure. Yeah, I think that's a good observation. The inspiration for those pieces was as much Ives, Copeland, Takemitsu, Ligeti, Berg, Varese as it was Dollar Brand and Chris MacGregor. I'm a sucker for twentieth century harmonic systems and the myriad possibilities that have come from that. And I'm as much a sucker for pentatonics and simple triad progressions. So particularly with "What We Were Told, after fourteen minutes of my best Ives imitation, I don't know how that ended up happening, but there's some kind of pretty straightforward harmonic material that ended up in this kwela type vamp at the end, and it just felt right, and that's what happened. I've always been a fan of music that isn't about one or the other, isn't about one kind of modernist strategy only, or only about the simplest harmonies possible. I just sort of think it is all valid.
AAJ: How important was it to have Marc Lowenstein there as a conductor?
HE: Quite important. I actually conducted the large version of "Without Roots at that festival in Halifax, and that was quite an adventure. Marc is a seriously accomplished trained legit conductor, who also conducts Vinny Golia's large ensemble and has done a lot of creative music conducting as well. So he was the perfect person to work with. Those two pieces, they're not extraordinarily difficult by any means, but there's just enough twists and turns that without a conductor, we probably would have been OK, but it was very helpful to have him there. He didn't conduct the Wayne Shorter material, just the octets. Because of a lot of meter changes and section changes and cueing issues, it was very nice that he was there. He did a great job; he kind of held it together actually. class="f-right s-img">
AAJ: Most people don't think of drummers as composers, but you are clearly ambitious and achieving in that respect, with works for creative orchestra, jazz groups, chamber octets. You've mentioned trying to marry together twentieth century harmonies with improvisation. What other inspirations do you draw on?
HE: That's a good question. Certainly I would hope that I draw inspiration from beyond musical sources ultimatelyfrom nature, from architecture, from photography, visual art, and from film and literature. You know, basically anything that strikes me from a structural perspective or a sense of how it's put together: its form interests me and I think influences my writing.
AAJ: So is this a search for unconventional forms?
HE: If not unconventional, just a search for forms that speak to me, whether they are conventional or not. I've written music that is 32 bars and rhythm changes music and twelve bar blues music and verse-chorus-verse-chorus pop music too, so it's not about conventional or not. But at the same time, in fairness, it's a great lesson from Leo Smith, who I studied with and who was a seminal mentor figure for me at CalArts some years ago; he was always like, "Get your ensembles together and make sure there is some unusual instrumentation, make sure there is some kind of distinctive compositional voice going on. Because the only serious pursuit that I think in the end I'm ultimately after is just trying to sound like myself and create a body of work that hopefully sounds like me. So that could be any number of things. Seriously though, all those other disciplines and parts of life influence my writing, as much as any specific composer or style of writing or kind of music.
AAJ: One of the later questions I was going to ask was that each of your releases does sound very different from each other. I don't know if that was a conscious decision, but I was wondering, what's the unifying factor? Is there a unifying factor?
HE: Well, again hopefully it's just me, and I don't mean that in any kind of fanciful or self-important way. I just think that in creating a body of work, the only thing that you have, hopefully, is your own identity, and that should be consistent in any representation. So you are absolutely right, and other people have asked me about thatthat it seems that every record is different, and why aren't there eight records of your quartet or something. And I'm all for that too.
AAJ: Was it a conscious decision?
HE: I guess so. I mean, but not like before I made the record I knew it was the only record of that band that was going to happen. Nothing like that. More just like, if something feels done and it's time to move on, then it's time to move on. If it feels like there's some unfinished business, or I want to revisit something, then I will. For that reason, I will be making a record in September inspired by this time I've just spent in Africa, and it will, I suppose, be conceptually related to Jalolu, but at the same time it's not that band or exactly those compositions.
So I don't know how conscious or not, but I've mentioned this in other interviews. I actually have always been attracted to Don Byron's music in a certain way. I don't necessarily love the music always per se, but I've always admired how far reaching his compositional and conceptual palette has stretched. And to me, never for the sake of esotericism or for the sake of pleasing anybody, just because he was really into something. Then two years later he's really into something else, then something else, then something else, yet all those things, it's still him, you know. I always drew inspiration from that.
He's not the only person who works like thatalso [saxophonist John] Zorn and [trumpeter] Dave Douglas in their own ways, and any number of people, once we start to get the ball rolling of influences. I'm interested in a lot of things. As a result, my output would hopefully reflect that class="f-right s-img">
AAJ: Perhaps we could talk about some of your other releases now. You have recently released a free improv record with Paul Rutherford and Torsten Muller entitled The Zone (Konnex, 2006). How did that trio come about?
HE: That came about at the 2003 Vancouver Jazz Festival. I was there playing with a Vancouver bassist named Travis Baker. He had an ensemble with Sara Schoenbeck and myself and a flautist named Ellen Burr from LA. And great festival that it is, it had concurrent small festivals that went alongside it every year. Because there are so many musicians in town from all over the world for this very ambitious festival, there would be these little fringe festivals that would pop up. So there was a festival at a great little organic vegetarian restaurant called the Sugar Refinery, that had an informal jam session kind of thing each nighta sort of a Company style thingand a bunch of different people showed up.
That's where I first played with Achim Kaufmann, who I've been playing with since, Tony Wilson, a very good guitarist from Vancouver, all different combinations of people, and one of those combinations happened to be Torsten, Paul and myself. And I stayed in touch with both of them, particularly with Torsten, and he called me up in, I guess it was mid 2004, and said, would you like to do a tour with Paul and I in January '05, and I said, yes that would be fantastic. So we did a two week tour at that time, and that CD is from Santa Fe Center for Contemporary Art, which was actually the first gig of the tour, and the first time we played as a trio for more than eight minutes! So that is the back story.
AAJ: It sounds very conversational in a way, with three equal partners, but it almost seems to have the direct communication and feel of a duo, in terms of the relationship between them. Was it as easy to play as it is to listen to? align=center>
HE: That's interesting. I think it was a very easy group interpersonally and musically. We had a nice time and everybody got along. Musically, it was fun each night. It was nine or ten gigs. Improvised music tours for me sometimesit's almost like a pit orchestra gig. I mean it's the exact opposite, but you know each night it's also the same thing. Meaning, each night with a pit orchestra gig, you show up and it's like, OK, I have to play the same score exactly, and it's exactly the same night after night after night, and it's kind of a drain by the end. Improvised music tours, similarly but differently, we show up every night and we have to make improvised music together, be on our toes and try and keep extending this improvised language we've developed each night. But it's hard because you fall into your language together. So sometimes after ten gigs of an improvised music tour, you're like, "Wow, I'm really glad that's over, because we're not doing anything new.
But this one felt great. I have to say Paul Rutherford played his ass off, and that was an inspiring thing. He's had up and down health these last few years, and we were hoping he was going to be in good spirits for the tour and playing great, and he was. And I think that really helped me, and the overall hang was very pleasant, but it helped make it feel fresh each night.
AAJ: I saw Paul Rutherford with Torsten Muller and Dylan van der Schyff at the Vision Festival last June. Were you meant to be on that gig?
HE: No, no. That was, I guess, a Vision Festival commission that was actually supposed to be...they had a quartet record with Ken Vandermark called Hoxha from a couple of years ago, and I don't know why, but for some reason Vandermark couldn't make the gig.
AAJ: He was touring at the same time.
HE: I'm sure he was [both laugh]. Busy man. So it was, I guess, that group minus Ken. I was actually in Halifax at the time doing that large ensemble piece when that happened, so I didn't get to hear the gig unfortunately. I didn't get to see Paul. Passing ships in the night.
The Soul and Gone
AAJ: The Soul and Gone (482 Records, 2005) you made with a group of Chicago musicians, and in a way, that's what I might call "jazzier than some of your other recordings. Was that a result of the players, the compositions, or a bit of both?
HE: A bit of both and a bit of intent, too. I wanted to make a record that had some swing elements to itsome ding-ding-a-ding elements to ithowever I chose to present it. And also it was about rhythm a lot. And also that had solos and had backgrounds. It wasn't "here's my jazz record. Jazz is a big influence in my life, musically and everything that goes along with it, in the best sense of that word, in the sense of innovation, improvisation, and dialogue. So yeah, I think there were definitely more overt elements in that record. Also, those tunes were written with that instrumentation in mind toovibraphone and guitar, trombone, two reeds, two chordal instruments, bass and drums. It just seemed like a very modular kind of group that could go in different directions. It wasn't explicitly "chamberish, it wasn't explicitly jazzy, it wasn't explicitly rock. It was just a little bit of each of those things.
AAJ: All the compositions are very different there as well. One of the things that you've mentioned before in relation to your Ahimsa Orchestra (Nine Winds, 2005) recording is that you've been using the idea of juxtaposing different parts of an ensemble. And although it's different in style, I could hear that on some of the pieces on The Soul and Gone where some people are playing the theme, while others were "duetting or soloing at the same time. Is that an ongoing area of exploration for you?
HE: Absolutely. I think, in a sense, that is my central area of concern as a composer. I've written very little music that was strictly through composed, except my terrible imitation Bach chorales and Mozart string quartets in undergrad. But professionally, almost all my work has been concerned with "how can I find ways of combining preconceived and instantly conceived material? So juxtaposition and simultaneity are at work in all the things I do. class="f-right s-img">
AAJ: Another band that you've been playing in is the Diplomats, with Rob Brown and Steve Swell, which is a free improvising unit in the avant jazz genre, and released an excellent record We Are Not Obstinate Islands (Clean Feed, 2006). How did that group come about?
HE: There was a short tour of the East Coast in the fall of '04, and that record is from a live performance from that tour, from Rochester. And we've played periodically since, in a kind of collectivist sense that Rob has booked something for it, I've booked something for it. Steve got Rob on the gig in the first place. It is a bit of an amorphous, leaderless thing. And it is a specialrevisiting once or twice a yearkind of a project. I love both those guys' playing so much, it is a pleasure to get a chance to play with them, particularly in a bass-less context. Because there is something immediately different I feel with that group than I was used to hearing previously with those guys.
I think of them in various groups with bass players almost always, though obviously Steve played in that band with Joey Baron and Ellery Eskelin for a long time without a bassist. Rob's trio is with cello rather than a bassist. Obviously they do many things without a bass, but somehow I thought of their musical identities as having a low end kind of free jazz rhythm section element to their playing and their concept. So it is always fun to play with them in that context because they are having this constant dialogue, and I hopefully am, with one of them, or we all are. So again, there is this shifting quality to it in that trio kind of sensea constantly shifting vignette of duos and solos, and trio playing. I really enjoy the playing that we've done. There is supposed to be another Clean Feed record in a year or so. It's kind of up in the air, so we will see what happens. class="f-right s-img">
The Convergence Quartet
AAJ: Another group you've played with, which we talked about before, was the Convergence Quartet with Dominic Lash, Alexander Hawkins and Taylor Ho Bynum, when you came over for the tour in England. That could have been a free improv gig, but you chose to use compositions as well, which I thought was an interesting choice, because the music to me seemed to veer between free improv and composition, sometimes in the same piece, which was very refreshing.
HE: Yeah, that was a project initiated by Alex Hawkins and Dom Lash. When they contacted Taylor and I in the first place, which was a little over a year ago, and asked us if we wanted to do the project, their idea conceptually was that each person would bring a composition, which I found very intriguing from the start, because of my experiences in the UK so far, when I've come across very few composer/improvisers. I know they're there and they're doing fantastic work, but it seemed to me, at least in the London scene that I know, and I don't know the scene extensively, but most people that I've met are free improvisers.
AAJ: Absolutely. I think that is the case.
HE: And leaderless groups and collectivist kind of ideas and all these sort of things don't lend themselves to "I'm the composer. Here guys, this is what we're doing.
AAJ: Yeah, some people seem to actively resent that.
HE: Yeah. That's all fine and good, and whatever people want to do is OK. So as a result, I was intrigued when these guys said this. It was the first time; Taylor and I were kind of laughing about this, because it was the first time younger musicians had gotten in touch with us saying, "Would you like to come with us on a tour and be the featured guys? or whatever. And we're like thirty-one years old, thinking, "Sure guys, if you're sure you want to do this, you know. [Both laugh.] And of course as it turned out, it was very much wonderful hang all round, and those guys are great. I think there was some playing space for everybody in that group, to step out, to support and to share. It was not about the old school model where some American jazz musician comes over to Europe...
AAJ: Like a pick up band.
HE: ...it was anything but. Not that Taylor or I would be interested in something like that. I shouldn't speak for Taylor; I don't think he would be. But it was just sort of funny, because it made both of us feel older than I guess we thought we were.
AAJ: The group played your composition "Convergence. Was it written knowing the players or did you write it blind?
HE: I wrote it on a bus in Poland while on tour with Jeb Bishop and Jason Roebke, four days before the tour started actually, knowing that we were supposed to bring in a tune. And I wanted to honor that this was going to be a new piece for this group, though I had never played with Alex or met him before, and just met Dom a couple times and played with him once when he brought me to Oxford in 2003. It was written with Taylor's lyricism in mind.
AAJ: It has a great melodic core to it.
HE: Thanks. And also it was written with the idea that I was expecting that there would be a lot of austere Twentieth Century structural kind of improv music, which there was. So I thought it would also be nice to have something with some groove, so I wrote something that was basically a repeated vamp for much of the tune. Just kind of a modal piece...I was guessing what the demographic of the compositions was going to be like, and I figured I would have this as part of our thing too. class="f-right s-img">
Making A Life Doing What I Love To Do
AAJ: Yeah, I think it worked well. It had the improv bits at the front and on the back, which provided an excellent contrast. You've been active with a lot of different groups, but by and large, as we've said, they've only made one record or one tour and then that's it. You've said in another interview that you tend to get a bit antsy if you are doing the same thing. Why that restlessness, if that's what it is?
HE: I don't know. That's a good question. I respect my colleagues who develop a project very much, and I respect the idea. I think it makes a lot of sense actually, and I probably should try it one of these days [laughs] and I'm sure I will. But I don't know. Again, I feel there are so many great musicians who inspire me and who I enjoy working with; there are so many different contexts that I love working in, but there are only so many gigs and there are only so many opportunities. I don't know if restless is the right word or not, but when I'm in the middle of a project, it takes all my focus. That's what it is.
But I also know that there are all these other things that I would like to try, and that, of course, is just the projects I initiated. And there are other people's projects, and strangely enough, the projects that I'm in that have been the most longstanding as a sideman, in various people's groups, that have been going on for four or five years now. Bill Horvitz, the guitarist, I've been playing in his trio with Steve Adams from ROVA (we have a tour coming up in a few weeks). That band has been together for five years. There is a tuba player from New Mexico named Mark Weaver, who has a brass, kind of New Orleans-meets-Threadgill quartet thing that I've been playing in for five years, and it's the same line up, and each tour we're playing old material and new material. It's very much a project that develops, and I think it's great and I love being part of things like that. I'm sure as a leader I'll do that at some point, I think.
AAJ: You are very active it seems to me, and in doing the research for this interview, I found the breadth of your work very impressive. You've been involved in film scores, theater pieces, receiving commissions, and so on. Are you able to combine all these things so that you can survive from your music?
HE: Yeah. I mean, it ain't pretty, but yeah, slowly but surely. I teach a little bit as well, and that lifeline is very important to have non-touring and one-off gig and work gig kind of income and backup from teaching. I enjoy it very much too. I haven't developed a teaching studio in New York just yet. I actually just moved here in the fall, and I've been gone a lot, so it hasn't quite come together yet. But all those years in LA I was teaching as well. I enjoy it and I'm sure I'll continue to teach too. But between whatever commissions I can scare up, other people's tours, my projects. and whatever I can book, my playing ends up being two thirds of my income and my teaching a third. Sometimes it's half and half.
Slowly but surely, I think it gets better every year, and I feel fortunate to be able to make a life doing what I love to do. It's not easy and most people don't think that it is possible, so there aren't really many models for how to do it, so you have to kind of figure it out as you go and have patience and also be tenacious about it, because it is just easier to find some other work. For me it has been teaching and I love it. I mean teaching drums or teaching music classes. But it is very difficult to just make it from playing. So it's a work in progress for sure.
AAJ: With the low cost of CD production and recording, the market is flooded with new releases, such that it is impossible to keep up with what's coming out, even within a single subgenre. As a musician, how do you cope in these circumstances?
HE: That's a very good question. By simultaneously disregarding the fact that anyone else is doing anything else, so you just do what you do. And also, being judicious about putting something out, with that very problem in mind, knowing that there are many people who are just constantly streaming things out there. And that is great. If they want to do that they can do that, and so you find the right balance of how much you feel you need to have released with how you can find a way to release it. I haven't self-released...sorry, I did self-release Ahimsa Orchestra, or rather I got a grant to put it out on Nine Winds. Nine Winds doesn't pay for it to come out, you pay for it yourself. I wanted to see that large ensemble music come out. Otherwise all my other records for the last five years have been on labels and funded by those labels. I feel fortunate for that.
Even with the low cost and easy access technology you are talking about, it is still a couple of thousand dollars to put out a recording that sounds good and is nicely packaged. So either you have the money to do that, or you find labels to work with. As a result, you are at the mercy of their release schedule, but that's the way it goes. And for me, I feel lucky; this will be my sixth record as a leader. I'm on about thirty or forty records. I feel it's been a pretty decent five or six years since my career started after CalArts. You know, there's the Braxton school of "Make sure ten thousand records come out before you are done on this planet, and there's the Walt Dickerson school that says, "You're one of the greatest vibes player ever. But there's a handful records of your work. So somewhere in between I think I'll end up, though I'm not sure where. It's a great challenge to decide how prolific you think you ought to be in the context of such a glut.
AAJ: You spent time working at Knitting Factory records. Did that help you with your ideas about marketing and promotion?
HE: No [laughs]. I wouldn't say so. I think it helped me with some kind of insight into the reality of putting out avant jazz or creative jazz or free improvised or non-mainstream alternative recordings and what that really means financially, exposure-wiseall those kind of things. It was very instructive. I was the radio promotions consultant, but Knitting Factory paid people like slaves basically, so I spent most of my time (there was the club as well as the label round the corner) during the day making cafe lattes and practicing drums or ear training on the piano in the spaces. It was like, if you're going to pay me like this, man, then I'm going to do what I can do here.
It was a very enlightening year, but mostly as a twenty-one-year-old enamored by creative music. It was great. I saw countless wonderful concerts for free, just because I was there. It was great for that reason. But as far as how much music business I learned from that experience: some, definitely, but that label was such a mess that I learned a lot what I didn't want to do.
AAJ: So you didn't come into it blind. You knew the downsides.
HE: I would say so.
AAJ: You just moved to New York City. Is that for playing purposes?
HE: It's for a lot of reasons. I'm from the East Coast. I'm from Toronto. My family is a lot closer to New York than LA. Not just that, but psychologically, being on the East Coast, I missed it. I was in LA from '99 to '05/'06, so that's six-and-a-half years, and I missed the East Coast from a psychological perspective and from a musical perspective. LA was a great place to spend some formative years for sure. I felt very fortunate to have been able to play with older musicians who were happy to work with younger players. It was a small scene. If you were serious, there was stuff to do, but ultimately it's a difficult place to get exposure. That's been the problem in LA for generations.
So I'm not of the New York-is-the-mecca kind of mentality, but at the same time, there is a plethora, a pile, of great musicians here, of all kinds and of all generations, of all ilks. There's a consciousness of creative music here. LA, it's off the radar; it's a self-sustaining, vibrant, nurturing small scene, but in the context of Los Angeles, it's invisible. Here it's not. In the Time Out music section, there is as many jazz and experimental gigs listed as rock and pop and country and world and whatever. I think this musicthese musics; it's not just one thingdeserves its rightful place among these other musics, and I just want to be in a place where that is the case. class="f-right s-img">
AAJ: Just to finish off, I was going to ask you about your plans for the future. You've talked about September in Chicago, anything else coming up?
HE: Yeah, I have a very busy April and May with a lot of gigs in New York primarily. I have a two week tour with Bill Horvitz's band with Steve Adamssome gigs in town with a bunch of different groups. I'm playing with Andrew Barker, a friend of mine from the Gold Sparkle Bands; some gigs with Sara Schoenbeck, bassoonist, my partner; and Nate Wooley, trumpet player; Eivind Opsick, the bassist. Some gigs with Steve Beresford who is coming to town, in a few weeks we're doing some stuffa Company night one night with a bunch of folks: Jessica Pavone, Reuben Radding Jason Hwang and Peter Evans. Then a trio gig with Steve and Nate Wooley, then the two week tour with Bill Horvitz. Then when I get back, I have a large ensemble thing with Nate, a couple of gigs of mine, and then some gigs with Jason Mears, a great old friend of mine, an alto saxophonist from the West Coast who has been living in Japan and has just moved back to the East Coast. We have some trio gigs with Nate Wooley and Jason and myselfJason's music.
And then in June, I'm doing this short tour with a songwriter friend from England actually, a guy named Otto Fischer from Oxford, with Keith Witty, a great bassist in New York. I don't know what you'd call it. He actually has a record on Incus of his songs. I think it's his only record. He's a fantastic guy, a really zany dude, with these cool improv kind of noise pop songs. So a song project with him and then a Canada day quintet project of mine. Someone just gave me a gig on July First, and that's Canada Day, so I'm going to do a project with Matt Bauder, Chris Dingman, Nate Wooley, and a bassist, so I'm going to write some music for that.
And what else? Jeb Bishop, a trombone player from Chicago, and Jason Roebke and myself did a tour in Poland and Austria in the Fall, and there is a record coming out on NotTwo in a couple of months. There is a record with Kris Tiner, from California, with Mike Baggetta, a guitarist from New York. They have a duo project that they expanded into a quartet, with myself and Brian Walsh, another California musician, and there's a record just out of that group on Evander. Ah, there's also a recording of duets with the great LA cornet player Bobby Bradford that was supposed to be coming out on Poobah as well. We actually have to do some more recording on that project. I hope it happens. It feels amazing to play with Bobby.
Then what else? I have a week of stuff in California at the end of April, a CD release concert for The All Seeing Eye + Octets. Sara and I are playing; we have a duo, called Saris. We've actually played concerts off and on for years. We did a tour in Europe a few years ago, and we're playing at the Spring Reverb Festival, put on by the Trummerflora Collective in San Diego I was talking about. Sara and I have been talking about making a record of that duet, because we have a bunch of music, and we have just never recorded it. There is talk of Achim Kaufmann, the Dutch pianist, making a trio record with Mark Dresser and I in December for Nuscope, a label from Texas. I'm sure many more things will pop up. There is supposed to be a CD release tour in Poland for that band with Jeb and Roebke. Looks like we're adding a fourthTony Malaby, my neighbor, which would be great. Just need to get everyone's schedules synched up.
AAJ: There's a lot of things in the works.
HE: I just got back from Africa, and last time I got back, it was like, I've got the rest of the year and I need to get some stuff going! Coming back this time feels like there's things in the works already.
AAJ: You've got it figured this time!
HE: More so than last time. I've got to get more and more things nailed down every day.
Harris Eisenstadt, All Seeing Eye + Octets (Poobah, 2007)
Paul Rutherford/ Torsten Muller/ Harris Eisenstadt, The Zone (Konnex, 2006)
The Diplomats, We Are Not Obstinate Islands (Clean Feed, 2006)
Harris Eisenstadt, Ahimsa Orchestra (Nine Winds, 2005)
Harris Eisenstadt, The Soul and Gone (482 Music, 2005)
Harris Eisenstadt/Adam Rudolph/Sam Rivers, Vista (Meta, 2004)
Harris Eisenstadt Quintet, Jalolu (CIMP, 2004)
Harris Eisenstadt, Fight Or Flight (New Sonic, 2003)
Harris Eisenstadt, Last Minute Of Play In This Period (Questionable, 2000)
Top Two Photos: Peter Gannushkin
Third Photo: Ken Luey
Bottom Photo: Satinder Singh