Harris Eisenstadt: From Mbalax to Canada Day


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Over the past decade, drummer, bandleader and composer Harris Eisenstadt has been a force in improvised music, active in both Los Angeles and New York (where he now resides). It's a testament to his creativity and energy that his ensembles have run the gamut from free-bop in the vein of post-Blue Note small groups, to orchestral works and the recasting of traditional Senegalese popular song into improvisational vehicles. Canada Day is the name of his latest ensemble and disc (Clean Feed, 2009)—a love letter to modern jazz of the 1960s and to his birthplace. Though busy with both family and music, Eisenstadt's artistic pace shows no sign of slowing.

All About Jazz: How have things been transpiring lately in New York for you?

Harris Eisenstadt: It's been a beautiful summer; our son was born June 13, so it's been a bit sleep-deprived, but wonderful. It makes everything else seem like "I'll get to it later," but of course in reality the balls have to keep rolling, I answer emails promptly, and so forth. It puts things in perspective. [Saxophonist] Ellery Eskelin has a ten-year-old, and I was asking the advice of everybody I could as my wife was getting ready to have our child. He said it helped him "skim the fat," and do the stuff he wanted to do. That's how I'm trying to approach it as: I have much less time to do other things.

AAJ: How has raising a child affected your musical outlook?

HE: The first concert I had on the books after Owen was born was a duo with Ellery when Owen was a week old; I was really nervous, as I was really sleep-deprived and hadn't thought about music or practiced much until a few hours beforehand. It turned out to be a really wonderful set. Having our son changed my playing right away; I felt like I was a little more patient and secure. Everyone has their insecurities, and if you're not keeping the nuts and bolts of what you do in order, it will show. But I feel like my patience has increased with each time I play these days. You adjust to your situation and you find a way.

AAJ: It's a curious perspective to tack on to one's artistic life and see how they merge.

HE: My wife, Sara Schoenbeck, is a bassoonist and has an active playing career. We wondered how we'd do it, but we have friends a decade or two older than us who have gone through it also. Most people I know whose careers I admire have kids or a family. It's a normal part of living.

AAJ: You speak of paring things down—could you extrapolate that from your daily life to your musical responsibilities and work as a composer?

HE: In some ways, whether it shows it or not, if you try to have a career as a bandleader and sideman, or a composer and interpreter and someone who plays both written and improvised music—all of these binaries—it's inevitable that someone starts thinking of you as more one thing than the other. There was part of me who wanted to be the journeyman drummer, playing four gigs a day seven days a week. But early on I knew that wasn't for me, and I wanted to write music as well as play in others' groups. Increasingly, I want to make sure there are (ideally) two writing projects of my own that are active at any given time.

Like with Canada Day—that's a working band and we have a busy fall with the record coming out and touring. I also have a nonet, Woodblock Prints, which started in the spring, even though it's not easy to get together for gigs. Those are my two main projects going, and I also like to try ad hoc groups as well, so if someone has a gig that neither of those bands will fit, I'll call up another set of people. As far as the sideman thing, even though I feel it's a part of me to be the versatile journeyman/sideman, it's turned out that often people call me for my specific approach. In the end, this is what I'm after anyways—striving to have an individual voice. And that's what I value most in the people I work with.

AAJ: Canada Day on paper looks like a reimagining of the classic Hard Bop/Free Bop quintet. Could you describe the impetus behind the group and how you differentiate it from other projects?

Harris Eisenstadt / Canada DayHE: If there's any kind of archetype for that group, I suppose that it's my love letter to the '60s Miles quintet filtered through '60s Blue Note records, with vibraphone replacing piano. It's not a large group and not a small group; it has a perfect combination of sparseness and richness in terms of orchestration. More than anything, I wanted to have a working group when I moved back to New York in 2006. I spent a lot of the last decade as a bandleader-composer taking Wadada Leo Smith's advice. Leo was a great mentor and teacher of mine. He said, "Once you get a group together, think about unusual instrumentation and sonorities, and think about challenging yourself from an orchestration or arranging concept." So a lot of my groups have tried to address these concerns.

The closest thing that Canada Day has to a progenitor is my first, self-released record, Last Minute of Play in This Period (Questionable Records), which I released when I was at CalArts in 2000. It was quartet music. Questionable was a label that started in 1997, when I was at the New School for a semester, by my friends [guitarist] Matt Richelson, [woodwind player/composer] Travis Just and I. We basically burned CD-Rs, had a now-defunct website and sold CDs at gigs. I feel like it was premature in a way to put out that record, but it was a document of my time at CalArts and a first foray into getting out there. The music of Canada Day is based on forms—even if they're very open, they're still songs. I think of them that way, and there are grooves happening throughout, which is quite different from some of the stuff I was exploring early on with records like Ahimsa Orchestra on Nine Winds (2005). With the large ensemble music I was writing, there were written parts, but a lot of it was freely improvised. After a couple of trips to Africa and increasing interest in time playing, that's had a tremendous effect on organizing my music.

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, [bassist] Eivind Opsvik, [tenor saxophonist] Matt Bauder or [vibraphonist] 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.

AAJ: Could you give us some background on how you got to Gambia and how these things developed?

Harris Eisenstadt / Adam RudolphHE: I owe two people a lot for this: Adam Rudolph, a drummer whom I've known since the late 1990s, and Foday Musa Suso, a kora player. They were both in the Mandingo Griot Society back in the 1970s and '80s. Suso has lived in the States since 1977, though he's Gambian and spends a lot of time there too. Adam connected me with him and I stayed with Suso and his family, and he organized traditional drumming teachers for me. I showed up at the airport in Gambia in the middle of December 2002, and the next day I was taken to the drummers' compound and every day for the next two months I studied traditional Mandinka drumming. I went to all the traditional events that they played for—weddings, baby naming, life cycle changes, manhood and womanhood training, and things like that. Senegal was my second time in Africa and to compare it to the first time, well, the first time was like your first kiss in high school.

AAJ: In these cultures that you're spending time in, music is such a basic part of life and one uses instruments to communicate whether ceremonially or something much simpler; music is woven into the basic fabric of existence. As an improviser, have you had a resulting change in how you approach playing on a day-to-day basis?

HE: That's a tough question. Even though the roots of Jazz and improvised music are in large part African, the literal day-to-day involvement between African musicians and the jazz community these days seems pretty few and far between. I play Sabar drums for Senegalese dance classes in New York, and the lead drummer has played with [drummer] Joe Chambers and [trombonist] Craig Harris and a bunch of other jazz musicians, but this seems like the exception rather than the norm. He has an awareness of jazz but in general, he seems much more interested in morphing traditional Senegalese drumming and dance into a tightly-choreographed stage show. Music is part of the social fabric for them, and it was often perplexing to folks in Senegal and Gambia that I was interested in their traditional music—"What do you care, you live in America and you're a tubab [white person/foreigner]."

They're flattered and they think it's cool, but I gave a copy of Guewel to the lead drummer of this Sabar group, who is a really fantastic, Art Blakey kind of drummer, Cheikh Mbaye. He's a big, strong guy who has a band called Sing Sing Rhythms and is an incredible, thunderous lead drummer, choreographing long patterns for musicians and dancers and so forth, and he never said a word about it. I wasn't surprised, but wanted to him to have it anyways. I do feel that, coming from my background, it's not the most logical or easy connection to make between the two musics, but it's always moved me.

AAJ: It's funny, you have the Dialogues of the Drums that Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille and Rashied Ali were doing in the 1970s and '80s—a sort of community-building effort through Free Jazz, and it seems like they were trying to do something in which art music could be woven into the greater cultural fabric.

HE: Right, and it's a beautiful idea, not disingenuous at all. But if you have a concert of improvised music, with four rumbling free jazz drummers in an African audience who are used to dancing, they're going to be confused and will ask where the beat is. It's a bit of a stretch, and the ideals of music in culture—it's not that they don't translate, it's just elusive to find the right metaphor to make it work.

AAJ: How did you get onto this musical path and become a drummer?

Harris Eisenstadt Guewel (l:r): Nate Wooly, Taylor Ho Bynum, Mark Taylor Harris Eisenstadt, Josh Sinton

HE: My dad was an amateur drummer who played in a rock band in college, the Checkmates. As a five-year-old listening to my dad playing along to Rolling Stones and CCR [Creedence Clearwater Revival] cassettes in the basement, it just seemed cool. Loving the drums came from loving my dad and wanting to be around him. I started with snare drum and then drum set, and I played in concert band in junior high and high school. I actually quit for most of high school, and came back to it in college and got serious again. I went to college in Maine to play hockey and baseball at Colby College, quit that the first year and played in a rock band doing gigs on campus and around New England. That's what I did throughout my entire undergrad until 1998, and after hearing Tony Williams and Elvin Jones I began distancing myself from rock music. It just went from there.

AAJ: That took you to CalArts, then?

HE: Yeah, in a roundabout way. After undergrad, I moved to New York in 1998-1999 and was working for the Knitting Factory Records label and doing some stage-managing for their Bell Atlantic and Texaco jazz festivals. I had formatively inspiring experiences there, seeing as many drummers as I could, and that's where I met Adam Rudolph, when he was playing with [multi-instrumentalist/composer] Yusef Lateef. He told me that Wadada Leo Smith had set up a program at CalArts, and as it was in its infancy, Leo was able to set up scholarship money and I ended up getting a two-year tuition waiver. I was really lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and I ended up staying in LA for five years until moving back to New York in 2006.

Harris EisenstadtAAJ: What was the impetus for returning to New York? Was it always in the cards?

HE: It was, but LA is the kind of place where you blink and a year goes by so it happened later than I thought it would. Opportunities came up, and I took them.

AAJ: There are a lot of great players in LA, too.

HE: Indeed, and it's difficult because the profile of the music is so low in Los Angeles. There are musicians who have been out there doing great work for decades, and it's a testament to their belief and resolve in what they're doing because getting noticed is very hard. People like [cornetist] Bobby Bradford, [reedman] Vinny Golia, [bassist] Steuart Liebig, and [drummer] Alex Cline have been there forever. What's nice about LA is that I got to work both with musicians my own age and the older players who were glad to have young improvisers interested in what they were doing. In some ways, I am a product of that environment; when people see young and hungry players, they find a way to work them in real quick. I got to work with Leo, Vinny, Steuart, Adam, recorded a little with Bobby Bradford, and with many other great musicians as well. It was a very productive period. Living in LA also made me realize that New York is not the only place to have a life as a creative musician—a perspective I feel fortunate to have had.

AAJ: Some people think of the jazz world in New York as somewhat ageist against younger players. Is that a misconception?

HE: To speak about New York musicians as one thing is impossible, as there are hundreds of players doing interesting things that in some cases overlap, in others not. If you talk to one musician, they might say if you haven't logged your time as an apprentice/sideman, you're doing it wrong, whereas others might say that you should start documenting your work right away. There are so many perspectives here, but I do think that in some cases the ageist thing might be true. There are so many musicians from every generation and so many micro-scenes. I feel like even though I've been here three years, there are a lot of players younger than myself who have arrived since I got here. It's too difficult to talk about the entire creative environment here, and though that's a daunting concept, it's also very inspiring. That's why I came back.

AAJ: Obviously, with your schedule shifted towards family as well as music, things are different for you—but what's in the pipeline right now?

HE: I'm sort of wondering that myself. I knew when we got pregnant last year that I would have a quiet summer and a busy fall that's mostly local. Canada Day has a little East Coast tour for a week and Nate Wooley's quintet also has some gigs, as well as Mary Halvorson/Jessica Pavone Duo's new quartet. Clean Feed is starting a European booking agency this fall that will hopefully have some work for both Canada Day and the Guewel group in 2010. I'm looking forward to Canada Day coming out on October 6th and hoping that it will be well received. We have a ton of material that hasn't been recorded yet, and I'd like to put together another Canada Day record for sometime in 2010. My nonet, Woodblock Prints, will continue—we did a weekly month-long residency in March, and I have a book of compositions for that band that I'd like to record next year.

Harris EisenstadtThere are a bunch of gigs in town with other people's groups this fall—projects led by [reedman] Mike McGinnis, vocalist Kyoko Kitamura, pianist Ursel Schlicht, and saxophonist Jason Mears. There's a few ad hoc trio gigs with pianist Angelica Sanchez and Ellery Eskelin, bassist Trevor Dunn and guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, and stuff with trumpeter Dave Ballou and trombonist Ben Gerstein. Adam Rudolph's Organic Orchestra has some gigs this fall, and UK pianist Alexander Hawkins is doing some gigs and recording a bunch of the South African expats' music with [altoist] Rob Brown, [bassist] Mark Helias, and myself. Oh yeah, and John Zorn asked me to come play the November Stone improv night—that should be fun. I'm probably forgetting some stuff but that's what comes to mind.

AAJ: You also teach, right?

HE: Well, the realities of New York being what they are, we have a nice place but it isn't cheap, so in addition to gigs I teach for three organizations—Carnegie Hall world music classes, the Brooklyn Conservatory, and the Manhattan New Music Project, for whom I teach music in high schools. For the most part, I'm going into New York public schools and underserved communities, and it's tough when I get home from a gig late and have to get up and teach all day. I definitely enjoy it, but between playing, writing and teaching, hanging with Sara and raising Owen, that's my daily grind.

AAJ: Getting back to the writing angle of things and how you're active enough with different pots, what are some of the things that you find factoring into your work, outside of music, that inform your day to day?

Harris Eisenstadt

HE: It's difficult to make a connection between what you come up with at the piano and what you hear in your head and then sketch out, and where it all came from. I certainly draw great inspiration from other music and art forms, from cultures all over the world, as well as literature and film. Nature is also very important—the four pieces I wrote for the nonet are inspired by depictions of nature in woodblock prints, small paintings on wood from the 19th century in Japan. I looked at prints that I liked a lot—by Hokusai, Hasui, and Hiroshige—sketched some ideas, and before I knew it I had these pieces. I certainly draw inspiration from composers Toru Takemitsu, Charles Ives, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Olivier Messiaen. I've been studying harmony and counterpoint with a wonderful teacher, Paul Caputo, over the past few years and that's been a tremendous source also.

AAJ: You mentioned teaching film music in Senegal.

HE: That came from the person I went with having a more concrete background in scoring film. I've only scored one film myself, but I played on a few soundtracks (a byproduct of living in LA). We worked with an amazing organization in Dakar, a center for student filmmakers with some access to cameras and film equipment. My co-composer friend said, "Why don't you bring some examples of your writing and talk about your work." I learned a lot during the process, and would like to do more film composing, but I always seem to return to writing for groups that I play in. Seems like it's the responsibility of the 21st century musician to be a composer as well as a performer. It's not that I wouldn't like to sit in the audience and hear my music performed... just doesn't happen that way too much.

AAJ: Who are some drummer-composers that have inspired you?

HE: It's a pretty under-represented population—Max Roach, Gerry Hemingway, and John Hollenbeck come to mind... there are others.

AAJ: One of the captivating things about your music is that one doesn't hear it as "drums first."

HE: I appreciate that—I'm pretty self-effacing in terms of the role that I play in my compositions, and maybe it's part of my personality. I'm not a particularly bombastic person or player, and I think my approach as an instrumentalist informs my approach to writing. I don't see a quintet composition as an opportunity for an extended drum solo with horn backgrounds, because I want to involve everybody in different ways. I feel like Paul Motian has been a big influence in a sort of non-drum-centered approach to ensemble writing and playing, being supportive first and foremost. That's what's really important to me—being sensitive to a group situation.

Selected Discography

Harris Eisenstadt, Canada Day (Clean Feed, 2009)

Achim Kaufmann/Mark Dresser/Harris Eisenstadt, Starmelodics (Nuscope, 2008)

Harris Eisenstadt, Guewel (Clean Feed, 2008)

Adam Rudolph Organic Orchestra, Thought Forms (Ruby Red, 2008)

Convergence 4tet, Convergence 4tet (FMR, 2007)

Harris Eisenstadt, The 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)

Photo Credits

Pages 4, 5: Peter Gannushkin, Courtesy of Harris Eisenstadt

Page 2: Courtesy of Harris Eisenstadt

Page 3: Scott Friedlander, Courtesy of Harris Eisenstadt



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