An Interview

Harris Eisenstadt (IV)

This interview with Harris Eisenstadt was conducted by email during December 2014.

Tony Reif: This record features a different Golden State than your first one in that Nicole Mitchell’s flute is replaced by Michael Moore’s clarinet. Why the change, and how would you say Michael’s style and his approach to jazz and to music in general affects the way the group interacts? (Maybe he brings with him some of that ICP Orchestra/New Dutch Swing sense of humour? But still and all, he’s an American and somehow that’s evident in his playing too, don’t you think?)

Harris Eisenstadt: Nicole Mitchell had some family obligations to tend to during the Canadian tour period, so I tried to think of who would take the group in an interesting and different direction. Mark Dresser suggested Michael Moore, and I’m glad he did! I hadn’t thought to involve someone living in Europe, but there were some fall 2014 European gigs coming up in addition to the summer Canadian festivals, so it made sense to find someone who could make both tour periods. Michael has a beautiful, playful, lyrical style, a harmonically fluid style; a supremely natural way of playing melodically and harmonically and rhythmically all at the same time, all in such deep ways. He brings a wonderful sense of spontaneous ensemble interplay that I’ve always loved in his work with two long-standing groups, ICP Orchestra and Available Jelly. He really introduced his own sense of spontaneous orchestration to Golden State, which worked great.

TR: We recorded the last concert on your Canadian jazz festivals tour (there actually wasn’t even an option of a studio recording because of Mark Dresser’s extremely tight schedule). In the liner note you talk about the vibe in the room having a positive effect on the music. What else do you think contributed to how well things turned out on that occasion?

HE: The opportunity to play every night for a week is why that last concert in Vancouver went so well. We started in Hamilton, played Montreal, Ottawa, Rochester and Edmonton, than had two days off, than played in Vancouver. So not only did we get to play a new book of tunes every night in a row for five nights, we also had those days off before the Vancouver concert, which ended up being sort of a period for things to settle, if not deliberately or consciously. When we arrived at the sound check at The Ironworks we’d sort of lived with the music for a couple extra days as well playing it every day. We’d internalized it even more somehow. We sound checked quite briefly as I remember, enough really for Dave (Sikula, the recording engineer) to get the levels he needed, and things ended up happening that night in the music that hadn’t happened yet. There was urgency because there has to be for the music to be vibrant (and because we were recording!), but there was also a sense of ease in a way we hadn’t actually felt earlier in the tour. You never can quite predict when that will happen, that settling. Relatively speaking, the longer a tour goes the easier the music gets, but not every tour is one big crescendo of better gig after better gig. Maybe because of the limited scope of the tour – six gigs, that little window to rest our brains and the ensemble for a minute and hang out in beautiful Vancouver (though Mark had flown back to San Diego from Edmonton to teach then flew back to Vancouver and went straight to sound check and still killed it!) – somehow it all just fell into place that night.

TR: Did you compose these pieces with Michael in mind? Do you feel that your compositions have taken any different directions this time? And what about your own playing?

HE: I didn’t compose the pieces with Michael in mind, as all the writing for this book had happened before I realized we needed to find a different fourth member for the tour. There’s something more straightforward about these songs in a way. They mostly follow fairly conventional forms, even head-solos-head in some cases, though with quite open approaches to solo sections and written materials. That wasn’t really deliberate – like “for this record I want to make a less complex book than the first record” (which were mostly multi-part suites); it’s just how it ended up. As for my own playing, I think there’s a simplicity or an economy of style meant to fit the compositions. The goal is always to play what is right for the piece on any given night. So if a song doesn’t ask for multiple high-wire acts to come off all at the same time and instead needs one focused task to unfold patiently or something, then that’s what I’ll do. So I guess the short answer to all three parts of the question is that things happened completely organically rather than me overtly trying to gear them to a different player, or change the vibe of the pieces, or consciously change my own approach.

TR: So could you give us some insights into the tunes like you did in the liner notes for the Canada Day releases? Any interesting facts about their formal qualities, style, inspiration for the titles, etc.

HE: “The Arrangement of Unequal Things” is part of a longer quote from the Richard Ford novel Canada that I was reading while writing the music for Golden State II and Canada Day IV (coming fall 2015). The passage reads: “I read that the great critic Ruskin wrote that composition is the arrangement of unequal things. Which means it’s for the composer to determine what’s equal to what, and what matters more and what can be set to the side of life’s hurtling passage forward.” “…Unequal Things” ended up in the Golden State II book. Three other tunes also got their titles from that passage, but ended up in the Canada Day IV book. “…Unequal Things” moves between duple and triple feels both in the written materials and as contrasting environments for clarinet and bassoon solos.

“Seven in Six/A Particularity with a Universal Resonance” began as two separate pieces. I hadn’t intended for them to be played as a medley, but that’s exactly what happened spontaneously the first night of Golden State’s summer 2014 tour in Hamilton. We liked how they worked together so we kept them like that for the rest of tour. “Seven in Six” is just a line in seven on top of a longer line in six. “…Resonance” has a more involved structure: three elegiac, meditative sections, and ultimately, a more uplifting strolling section that Michael solos on. The title comes from an obit for James Gandolfini, actually (hence the elegiac sections, I suppose). The obit described the appeal Gandolfini had, both on The Sopranos and in his other work. The turn of phrase stuck with me so I wrote it down.

“A Kind of Resigned Indignation” comes from an obit for Nora Ephron. Not sure why two titles come from obituaries. I don’t read obits often. I read the print Saturday and Sunday New York Times, so I probably saw both there. Again, the phrase stuck with me so I wrote it down. That’s often how I collect titles. The pace of the music unfolds in a kind of resigned, but indignant, way. Maybe patient is more accurate. The solos and overall spirit are definitely indignant, anyways.

“Agency” refers to the capacity we have as individuals to make choices, rather than as a reference to any particular organization. The title refers to the ways in which each musician negotiates the composition in improvisatory ways.

“Gleaning” also has multiple meanings. The word refers to collecting leftover crops after a harvest, an apt reference to my compositional process. There was more to this piece, but these are the parts I kept. To glean also means to extract information. Both meanings apply to the piece. I supplied only so much information to the musicians. They extracted the information they needed and constantly re-cast the materials.

TR: In the liner notes you use the term “musician’s musician” to describe all three of the musicians (and I’d certainly extend that to you as well!). But there’s nothing particularly esoteric, much less “difficult”, about this music. Are there things that you think about or talk about when you’re working on the arrangements and rehearsing the music to balance interesting complexities that listeners with more musical experience are particularly going to appreciate (a more “avant-garde” treatment and process) with things that a broader jazz audience might respond to more – drive, excitement, melody, harmony…? Do you give the players much direction, or mostly leave things to their imagination?

HE: I didn’t really talk about what kind of audience we’d be playing for in rehearsal. The only rehearsal we had was at noon in Hamilton the day of the first gig, after Mark had flown in from San Diego, Michael from Amsterdam, and Sara and I had dropped off our son at my parents’ house in Toronto. It was like, “let’s get through this material as succinctly as possible.” There wasn’t really discussion so much about whether we should approach the songs this way or that way, whether we were trying to make it somehow more streamlined for all listeners or more cryptic somehow for specialized listeners; none of that. In fact, our first gig was something of a rehearsal, inevitably. We got through all the songs and put everything we could into it, our minds, our hearts, and our collective intention. Actually, the rehearsal and the first gig went a long way to solidify the approach we’d take for the remainder of the concerts, which ties into the second part of your question. I certainly try to be clear when giving directions in rehearsal, and this is true for Golden State or Canada Day and others’ groups that I play in; collaborative projects, any playing situation, really. If someone puts a composition in front of me or I put one in front of them, I want as much clarity and direction (and that includes not over-directing or micro-managing!) as possible so the actual music-making can be left to the musicians’ imaginations.

TR: Where do you see things going with Golden State in the future?

HE: Golden State has been a kind of serendipitous special project. The genesis of it came about while I was in residence at California Institute of the Arts in 2012. Sara came out with me, and I thought since Mark Dresser and Nicole Mitchell lived in Southern California, it would be a nice opportunity to get the four of us together in a small group setting. It went great, so it seemed like the project should have some life. Same thing this time around: Michael stepped in, and the direction of the group changed. It took on this interesting life in different ways on the Canadian festivals tour than it did the first time. And then, when what was meant to be a much longer European tour ended up as only two concerts, it became too far and expensive for Mark to come all the way from San Diego. So Pascal Niggenkemper, a great bassist who I often play with in New York (and who’s been playing with Canada Day as well), ended up subbing for Mark as Pascal was already in Europe. We played two fantastic concerts at Rote Fabrik in Zurich and the Music Unlimited Festival in Wels. We’d also done a warm-up gig in New York to get Pascal up on the tunes. Since it wasn’t possible for Michael to come from Amsterdam for a little New York gig, Chris Speed ended up subbing for Michael. Speed, of course, sounded amazing.

So it’s been this fluid project as it turns out, and the one constant ends up being Sara Schoenbeck on bassoon. I guess somewhere along the line, probably when I had to figure out who could cover for Nicole, and then reinforced even more when Pascal covered the European fall dates for Mark, it became clear that in the end Golden State is a project built for my wife and me to get play together in a small ensemble setting. Sara has been my longest active musical partner (in addition to our personal partnership). Since we had our son, Owen, almost six years ago, we have had less opportunity to play together. We have a longstanding duo called Saris that plays seemingly once every five years now instead of once or twice per year, as it did for a decade. As to concrete future plans, there is a CD release gig booked for March 18 at Cornelia Street Café in New York. Michael and Mark aren’t in New York then, Chris will be on tour in Europe, so Marty Ehrlich will join Sara, Pascal and me, which will take the music in yet another interesting direction. That’s where things are at as of now. I was thinking a quintet version of the project with Nicole and Michael involved would be interesting; we’ll see what happens. Wherever Golden State goes in the future, it will always be a small group, chamber-oriented project built on my collaboration with Sara. While my group Canada Day doesn’t play unless Nate, Matt and Chris are all available (I’m happy for any of the three bass players who have done it at this point to be involved), Golden State will never be called Golden State unless Sara is involved. In a way, it’s in homage to our time together in California; I lived in Los Angeles for seven years, Sara grew up in the Bay Area then lived in L.A. for eleven years.