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Harris Eisenstadt: From Mbalax to Canada Day

By Published: October 5, 2009
AAJ: Could you talk about Canada Day in terms of "place"?

HE: There's the title and the Canada goose on the cover, and a couple of songs that give it up for Canada. The band lineup was solidified on July 1, 2007, which is Canada Day. It just seemed like a good name, and it was appropriately titled. I've been living in the US almost as long as I lived in Canada—I was born there in 1975 and moved to the States in 1994. My wife has been trying to get us to move to Vancouver for years, and Canada is a big part of who I am. It's where I grew up. The record is all about dedication—that's important in how I title my work. Of course, I do pine for Canada or at least for somewhere quieter. It could be accused of being boring compared to New York, but it's a great place as far as quality of life and social programs, so certainly I do have some nostalgia for it. But there's something that keeps me here, something vital, though it doesn't stop me from thinking about the mountains near Vancouver, or Toronto's green parks.

Harris Eisenstadt Canada Day (l:r): Chris Dingman, Eivind Opsvik, Matt Bauder Harris Eisenstadt, Nate Wooley

AAJ: With Guewel (Clean Feed, 2008), one notices this almost minimal approach to writing thematic material that's based on lots of repetition and encircling patterns. It seems like there's been a marked shift in your composing through those experiences. On Canada Day as well, there's a post-bop time playing approach, but it's filtered through these experiences with other styles.

HE: I think that's true with Guewel, as well as Jalolu (CIMP, 2004), which are personal excursions into finding a way of playing these West African songs. In both cases they are straight transcriptions of traditional drum patterns, while trying to make that work in a context with horns and rhythm and unusual harmonies. The material I was transcribing was without pitches; I was thinking of the brass and baritone saxophone as drums and I wasn't approaching them with a vertical palette in mind. There are cycles of rhythms going on in Guewel, repetition and variation, and then transcriptions of Senegalese pop songs, which we used as springboards for improvisation.

It's hard to think of Guewel and Canada Day along similar lines—I had just returned from Senegal and was excited to try and turn these songs I'd collected into something else. Whereas Canada Day has songs that were written and performed over a few years with the artistic input of all the players involved, Guewel was a special topics kind of project. We played a couple of gigs and made a record. I'm hoping that band and Canada Day will both tour in 2010, but Guewel was a "Whew, I'm back, let's do this" situation—just trying it to see what happens.

AAJ: Well, it's easy to be tempted to draw lines between various works—similar issues of repetition and expansion even seem to be confronted on "Portrait of Holden Caulfield" (The Soul and Gone (482 Music, 2005)).

HE: I think that throughout my work—and I hope this is true—the greatest lesson from Leo Smith as a composition teacher (from 1999-2001), was when I would bring him material every week that he'd chop up and say, "Okay, here's what you've got left." He has an incredible knack for stripping away what's unnecessary in a composition, and what is left is a polished diamond. Forty minutes of music and it's from one page of writing. His rhythm units, cycles, and ideas of structure are totally unique and profound. "Halifax," one of the songs on Canada Day, comes to mind as a composition informed by Leo—it's a very limited amount of material and you find a way to make music out of it.

Harris Eisenstadt / GuewelYou hope that the people you've chosen to be involved will find their own ways to make it into something meaningful. Some of the tunes are longer than others, but in general the idea of not overwriting is a lesson from Leo Smith (he'd probably still say there's too much). You're writing for improvisers in this music, and you've got to trust them. They're going to help make your composition collective and make it better—as soon as I open it up to [trumpeter] Nate Wooley
Nate Wooley
Nate Wooley
, [bassist] Eivind Opsvik, [tenor saxophonist] Matt Bauder or [vibraphonist] Chris Dingman
Chris Dingman
Chris Dingman
, they're going to make it really strong. Why tie them down?

AAJ: Could you talk about your experiences in Senegal a bit more?

HE: Sure, I was in Senegal just once, in 2007 when I was there on a Meet the Composer grant that I received along with a co-composer friend of mine from CalArts, Willow Williamson. We were there to teach film scoring to student filmmakers. The grant paid my ticket and living expenses, and I had enough money left over to study traditional Senegalese drumming. I spent my five weeks shuttling between my teachers' compound and going to hear Mbalax, which is the modern Senegalese music you hear in nightclubs.

It was one of those things that I could only do then—run off to West Africa for five weeks while my wife was here. With my son I can't do that—at least not without bringing him and Sara—but it was a beautiful thing and it was my second time in West Africa. I took a harrowing overland car trip to Gambia from Dakar, and I reconnected with some of the people I met when I was there in 2002. I saw my teacher, Jalamang Camara, whom I had studied Mandinka drumming with. It's an extremely rich culture with so much hospitality, but it's so incredibly poor. It's heavy to experience these situations with impossibly deep culture in very harsh environments.

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Download jazz mp3 “Song For Owen” by Harris Eisenstadt