An Interview

Harris Eisenstadt (II)

This interview with Harris Eisenstadt was conducted by email during April 2012.

Tony Reif: You composed a piece called “Palimpsest” for the American Composers Orchestra’s Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute, some of the ‘trimmings’ of which you’ve reworked as parts of some of the tunes on Canada Day III. I’m curious what the experience of writing for a large classical (‘third stream’?) ensemble was like, and how the experience might have affected your musical language for the Canada Day group.

Harris Eisenstadt: Preparing an orchestral piece (even just a six-minute one!) was an exhaustive, exhausting, invaluable experience. I wrote the first minute of it between July and September 2010. The next five minutes I worked on until I was forced to turn in a ‘final’ draft April 2011, meaning parts had to be submitted, no more edits. Though it was something we were asked to consider incorporating, there ended up being no improvisation in the piece. I thought a lot about how I could include it, but decided against in the end. It was a great opportunity to compose some visceral, challenging music for incredible interpreters of notated music. I wanted it to be enjoyable for the musicians as well as the audience. It was a thrill to sit in the audience and listen to it rehearsed and read. The experience affected my language for Canada Day by generating material (the previously-mentioned trimmings), and simply by composing like that for a year.

TR: You also have a Canada Day Octet recording on 482 Music which is being released in conjunction with Canada Day III. The octet is Canada Day + Ray Anderson, Jason Mears (alto) and Dan Peck (tuba). Are there any big differences in your approach to creating music for/with this group, as compared to Canada Day?

HE: The octet pieces are mostly longer forms than the quintet music. They combine compositional approaches I’ve used for Canada Day with compositions written for medium-sized ensembles I’ve led over the years. The most recent of these long suites (rather than eight or nine short pieces, as on Canada Day I, II, and III) was recorded on Woodblock Prints (2010). On that record and the octet record, there are two basslines going most of the time between the bass and tuba. There are also extensive horn backgrounds behind solos and in open improvised sections on Octet.

TR: There’s something wonderfully consistent and also interestingly distinctive about your writing and arranging for Canada Day. It’s partly the particular instrumentation and the strong musical personalities of the group members, but beyond that I think these records find a great balance between all the different approaches and tendencies of modern jazz (composition/improvisation, inside/outside, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and textural elements, etc.). Another thing I’ve noticed is that there are often rhythmic changeups in your pieces, you take the listener on rhythm journeys, such as on “Shuttle off this Mortal Coil” which starts as a waltz and eventually morphs into a march, ending in a rubato coda. Could you share something about your approach to melody/harmony/rhythm and how you put them all together?

HE: It depends from piece to piece of course. Many of my compositions begin as bass lines for one section of a song. I’ll slowly find melodies and harmonies to fill out that section and find other sections from there. More and more my pieces have been starting as a set of harmonic changes. I never really wrote like that naturally, but after some recent years of harmony/counterpoint studies and setting progression after progression as exercises, I’ve embraced that approach as well. Occasionally a song will begin with a melody and I’ll fill things out from there. “Song for Owen” from Canada Day II was like that.

TR: Your strategy of playing pieces for a year and coming right off a tour to record at the end of that time really pays dividends in terms of a band that’s finely attuned to one other and is actually carrying on musical conversations. If you agree with this idea, do you think you could you put into words some of the things your conversations with band members are typically ‘about’?

HE: I definitely agree that recording after a year of playing material – and particularly right after a tour – pays big dividends in terms of a band that feels and sounds like a band. Strong records don’t have to be made like that, but it’s a nice way to do it! As for what our conversations are about, at the beginning of a book when we’re learning the songs, I try not to fix too much until we hear how different parts of pieces fit and sound together. We sort of build road maps through trial and error. I of course ask for people’s input and welcome it, as they’re each composer/bandleaders with strong ideas. Having said that I do generally fix things myself. I think it helps when a bandleader is decisive, and I appreciate it as a sideman when other leaders are like that. There’s a fine balance to be struck between respecting the musical instincts of the people you’ve hired and helping the music by being decisive about road maps, solo orders, set lists, assigning cues, etc.

TR: As part and parcel of the music’s highly dovetailed, well-made quality, and offering a kind of ballast or counterbalance to that constantly integrating jazz drive, there are many moments of humor and surprise in the writing and playing, especially Nate’s and Matt’s (e.g. Nate’s fantastic integration of open notes into a very original Harmon mute solo on “The Magician of Lublin” and the poe-faced, tiptoeing free group improv near the end of “A Whole New Amount of Interactivity” that suddenly coalesces into the outhead (the title itself has its own humorously ironic tinge to match). “Nosey Parker” seems almost snarky, even in its moments of downright beauty such as Matt’s freely parodic treatment of several vintage sax styles in his solo. Is this humor and, well, complexity of tone something you aim for and discuss, or is it more often a happy by-product of the fact that the musicians really know the music and can therefore afford to run with it?

HE: I hadn’t really thought of the humor in these pieces before. I’m going for something visceral for sure, and not overly solemn or serious, but I’d have to say that humor and/or complexity of tone is a by-product of an individual’s specific listening experience as much as it is a result of the musicians really knowing the music. I do think that the fluidity of solo approaches comes from playing the pieces enough to not have to think about what might work. Most importantly, I want the musicians to be able to run with their instincts and be themselves no matter what. You may be noticing the humor and complexity of their soloistic approaches as much as the structures I’ve given them to work with.

TR: Since Canada Day II Garth Stevenson has taken over the bass chair from Eyvind Opsvik, and that creates a somewhat different feeling in how the rhythm section functions. It seems to me (at least from what I’m hearing on the record) that he anchors the rhythms more than Eyvind, who was always dancing around them with you and Chris. One approach is not necessarily better than the other, but has that change affected how you play in the group much?

HE: It’s true that their approaches are different. I’m not sure if one dances around more and one anchors more all the time, but it has been a pleasure to play this music with both Eivind and Garth. I wouldn’t say that it has changed my approach much. In both cases I trust those guys to do what they do and I play the way I play. They both are such strong rhythmic players and fill and leave space so beautifully that I don’t have to think about altering anything I do.

TR: You’re the drummer in François Houle’s new 5 + 1 group, whose record Genera is coming out on Songlines at the same time as Canada Day III. And his writing and arranging is quite different from yours in Canada Day – and sometimes more complex, given its unconventional (for modern jazz) 3 horn frontline of clarinet, cornet and trombone, plus piano. Did you find yourself consciously modifying your style playing François’ compositions, or was it more a matter of letting your musical instincts take things wherever?

HE: I let my musical instincts take over with that recording for sure. We had such a small window to rehearse and record the music, so there was really no chance to approach anything too consciously at all. That ensemble will get a chance to grow this summer on the road doing the Canadian festivals. All I could really do for that session was trust myself and trust the other musicians. We all did that, and I think the music came out sounding very strong as a result.

TR: I’m interested in exploring your thoughts about jazz drumming in the context of today’s music generally (i.e. not just jazz). If you could generalize (given that all great drummers develop their own ways of doing things, refining a range of styles of their own), what sorts of things has your generation, those who grew up in the 90s, brought to jazz and contemporary music in general in terms of rhythmic and textural innovations or consolidations? And, as a composer as well as a drummer, what unexplored avenues beckon?

HE: It has been a fantastic time to be part of the jazz drumming tradition, these almost-twenty years since I began to play seriously. The generations or two older than me (if we’re going in 10-year increments, say) brought all these other approaches into jazz drumming – people like Joey Baron, Tom Rainey, Jim Black, Mike Sarin, Kenny Wollesen have influenced me greatly. Rock, textural free improvisation, African and Diaspora drum traditions and 20th century Western music are as important in my concept of jazz drum language as bebop and early jazz approaches. It has also become much more common to find very interesting drummer/composer/leaders who are not just the nominal heads of blowing sessions, but drummers with powerful composer/leader concepts – Gerry Hemingway and John Hollebnbeck are examples that come to mind. As far as unexplored avenues, there are many! I’ve started in on a song cycle for two voices, medium-sized ensembles and video, setting texts from John Le Carre’s late period, post-Cold War novels. I’ve also started to imagine a large-scale performance work involving animation, dramatic narrative, and music. Very early stages with that. I’ve been studying Cuban bata drumming for the last year, which keeps me humble and reminds me constantly how much percussion inspiration there is in the world! I’m writing the second book for September Trio (with Ellery Eskelin and Angelica Sanchez) in preparation for a Europe tour in September. I’m about to start work on an orchestral commission for the Brooklyn Conservatory Orchestra for spring 2013. And in the fall I’ll start writing the fourth Canada Day book for 2013.