Harris Eisenstadt: From Mbalax to Canada Day

Clifford Allen By

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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.

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