An Interview

Harris Eisenstadt (I)

This interview with Harris Eisenstadt was conducted by email during February 2011.

Tony Reif: There’s a pretty thorough bio on your website but I wanted to delve into some of the wide range of music you’ve been involved in as a way to get at this new Canada Day release. First though I’m curious whether there’s anything more to the name of the group, other than that you’re Canadian (although based LA and then NY for many years) and that the group played its first gig on Canada Day (July 1) 2007. The design of this record is inspired by old family photos of the lake country north of Toronto (the Muskokas) where you went to summer camp when you were a kid. Is there anything about growing up in Canada and being Canadian that informs your view of jazz, music, the world?

Harris Eisenstadt: There’s something deeply nostalgic about Canada to me at this point, so the name is significant despite its coincidental discovery. I wonder whether I will end up staying in the US for the remainder of my career or end up back in Canada. Some part of me would love to end up in Vancouver one day, actually, though only if the right situation (whatever that might be) came up. But I love living in Brooklyn, being a New Yorker, and I can’t really imagine actually living anywhere else at this point. Growing up in Canada definitely has informed my view of jazz, music in general, and the world. Though I played in jazz and concert bands for a few years in junior high and high school, I wasn’t really consumed by jazz until my undergraduate college years in the US. There was something about growing up in Toronto – a city that saw itself as the Canadian New York – which always made me want to end up in the actual New York. I see being Canadian as a privilege, and it has shaped how I see the world.

TR: You did your M.F.A. at Cal Arts in their African American Improvisational Music program, which I assume also involved traditional African music ensembles, and you’ve played in ensembles with musicians from Bali, Gambia, Ghana, Morocco, Iran and Senegal and performed in Gambia and Senegal. Does that background in world music affect your concepts in jazz? Obviously there’s a rock feel that comes through in what you play…

HE: My time at CalArts involved extensive time spent studying Ewe and Dagomba music from Ghana with Alfred Ladzekpo, Kobla Ladzekpo, Beatrice Lawluvi, and Suley Imoro. It wasn’t a requirement for my program, but it became a central preoccupation of my two years there the moment I heard the lead drumming reverberating through the halls the first day of registration. I actually studied and performed the dance primarily, though studied some of the drumming as well. My love and respect for music of the world’s peoples has definitely affected my work as an instrumentalist and composer. It’s hard to say quantifiably how, but certainly as a constant source of inspiration. As for a rock feel in my playing, I owe that to my early inspirations – classic rock of the 1960s and 1970s filtered through my 1980s/early1990s adolescence and teenage years.

TR: Who are the drummers (or performers on other instruments) who have meant the most to you or who you enjoy listening to most these days? (Btw does the title “Tootie” refer to Tootie Heath?)

HE: My drumset teachers Barry Altschul, Gerry Hemingway, Joe Labarbera and Joe Porcaro have meant a lot to me. Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes, Jack DeJohnette, Paul Motian, Tom Rainey, Joey Baron, Michael Sarin and Kenny Wollesen are all drumset players that have been influential from early on. Adam Rudolph has turned me on to a lot of music and drumming from around the world. He put me in touch with the kora player Foday Musa Suso, who was my host for two research trips to Gambia and arranged traditional drummers for me to study with: Jalamang Camara and Mamady Danfa (who has recently passed, sadly). Senegalese sabar drummers including all the Sing Sing Rhythms drummers in New York and my teacher in Dakar, Malick Ngom, have meant a lot to me. I’ve recently been downloading Ocora recordings on emusic; drummers from Colombia and Togo, and mbira players Zimbabwe have been blowing me away. Tootie doesn’t refer to Tootie Heath (though he’s wonderful). It was originally “IId.”

TR: In your EPK you say something to the effect that being a drummer-composer it’s always rhythm that you’re working with. For Canada Day do you also think specifically about the members of the band and compose for their musical personalities (for example Matt’s Websterish/Getzian side, or Nate’s love of extended techniques/noise)? Could you talk a little about some of the pieces in terms of their form and/or the interactions between different elements (or instruments)? Do you think of the band as having a collective voice, or is it more the interactions between the voices that interests you?

HE: I do compose for the band members but not quite as overtly as the Ellington model. My pieces for improvisers usually begin life in a somewhat universalist fashion – i.e. parts assigned to particular instruments rather than people. The personalities of the instrumentalists come out in the arrangements. For instance, in “To See,” the piece begins with a unison rhythmic line in the trumpet and tenor. At some point I asked Nate to play dense, active non-pitched textures over that space rather than playing the part, and I asked Matt to keep the rhythmic and pitch material of the part most of the time but mess with timbre, articulation and register. I wrote out some block chords for Dingman to see the harmony but asked him to make his own versions of the chords as they went by – changing registers, voicings, playing them harmonically versus arpeggiating the chords, adding notes to the harmony, messing with the timbre (i.e. more and less vibrato) etc. I wrote out Eivind’s bass line for some sections and just put in changes for some sections. Whether a specific bass part or a set of changes, I always would ask a bass player to use what’s there to make his own versions of the parts. The key here is that this is a group of improvisers. No matter how detailed my scores are, the strength and vibrancy of the music comes from the band finding its collective voice through rehearsals and performances.

TR: You’ve also said that Canada Day is inspired by the mid-60s – Blue Note’s more avant side, Wayne Shorter, Miles’ 60s quintet etc. – but that it also explores areas of improvisation that are outside of jazz. Without splitting hairs over the definition of jazz today, could you expand on how that 60s feel (and we could add Dolphy and also Bobby Hutcherson to the list, certainly one of Chris’s inspirations) and the free jazz/improv side of things (which also of course comes out of the 60s) are getting renewed or updated 40+ years later, in this band but also in jazz more generally? There’s a nice quote from Nate Chinen that seems to fit this topic: “Eisenstadt…takes a fixer’s approach to music making, looking for ways to fit the pieces together. He works along jazz’s progressive fringe but doesn’t generally set out to make a ruckus. In his own music especially, he often seems intent on extracting consonance from dissonance or forging ungainliness into grace.”

HE: There is something that all the different strains of jazz from the 60s that you mention above share: a sense of adventure. All those musics are being renewed and updated today in endless different ways – amazing, really, considering the culture wars of the 80s and 90s. I think Chinen says it well: I do take a fixer’s approach to music making. I’m not a breaker. I’m interested in freedom and structure and different ways they can co-exist. I think it’s true that increasingly in my writing I’ve been trying to extract consonance from dissonance, but not in stock ways. Maybe it goes along with the ever-increasing amount of adventurous music making out there, but I do believe that our collective ears are increasingly accepting of more and more dissonance. As for ungainliness and grace, I find it exciting when an artist negotiates an ungainly task gracefully. I think that definition fits better for me than the opposite (someone who forges gainliness into disgrace, I guess).

TR: Where do you see things going from here, musically, with this group?

HE: I’m working on the third book now. It’s been very interesting to see how the tunes for the next record are indicative of a time in my life just as the songs for Canada Day II were of my life two years ago. My wife had just given birth to our son and I was kind of floating along in a tired and sentimental way. I found myself writing simple songs…sketching straightforward harmonies on the piano or singing melodies in my head and then putting changes to them, in stark contrast to the way I’d formulated “To Eh,” “To Be” and “To See/Tootie,” which were written before Owen was born. Since last summer I’ve been hard at work writing a 5-minute piece for the American Composers Orchestra. The songs I’ve been working on for Canada Day III started life as sketches for this orchestral piece and have become very different as they’ve grown into new pieces for Canada Day.

I’m getting five songs ready for a gig in New York February 16. Then we have a tour for a week in early April, so I’ll edit the pieces from the February gig and add more material before the April tour. We’ll rehearse a few days before the tour starts and shape our third book while on a CD release tour for the second record(!). It has to be that way. Opportunities to play on consecutive nights are rare. In fact that’s how the music came together for Canada Day II – on the bandstand night after night for two tours, one in 2009 and one in 2010, in addition to periodic gigs in New York.

I’ve started trying to organize some short tours for fall 2011 and spring 2012 and will fill those tours in with periodic gigs in New York. I envision recording the third record in early 2012 after that second tour. One uncertainty about the third record is whether it will end up being for 5 or 8 musicians. We’ll do an octet arrangement of the third book on a gig in New York April 14, presented by the Destination Out Website folks. I’m adding Ray Anderson (trombone), Joe Daley (tuba), and Jason Mears (alto sax) for this concert. I’m hoping it’ll go great, and I’d imagine that I would want to find further opportunities for the octet version of Canada Day as well as the quintet in preparation for the third record.