An Interview

Harris Eisenstadt (V)

This interview with Harris Eisenstadt was conducted by email during July 2015.

Tony Reif: Looking back on the (more than?) six-year history of this band (with the only personnel changes being the bassist), has your concept of what the band does or can do changed over time, in terms of your way of composing and arranging the music for this particular group of players, how the group interacts (e.g. you, Chris and/or Pascal, and Nate and Matt), or whatever. (In the liner note you talk about how arranging to have duos within pieces provides a variety of sonic weights and gives the music more air.) And what about your drumming – has it evolved much, do you think, in this group or in general?

Harris Eisenstadt: Canada Day’s first gig was at Jim Carney’s Konceptions series (then at Bar 4) in Brooklyn on July 1, 2007 ­– Canada Day – so we’re in our eighth year. Our first recording is from 2009, so we have a six-year recorded history. My original intention – really, what motivated me to move back to New York in 2005/2006 (I lived in New York from 1998-99 before moving to California for seven years) ­– was to have a working band. A “working” band can play once a year, ten times a year, twenty times, twice a year; it varies, but a band with mostly the same people involved over years is, to me, what makes it a working band. I wanted to find the folks who would work together well, stick with it and develop a group concept incrementally. The group concept has changed over time as I’ve changed over time; music comes out of me differently now compared to how it did then, reflecting the ways in which my life continues to change and influence how I write music and play the drums. But the core principle has remained basically the same: a quintet of standard instrumentation (with vibraphone slightly less traditional than piano would be) that could be a long-term vehicle for a variety of compositional structures and improvisational strategies. As to how the group interacts, that’s been interesting to watch; as you point out, in the liner notes I wrote that I wanted to go deeper into the possibilities of solo, duo, trio and quartet spaces within the ensemble. And rather than have stand-alone small group pieces, I decided to incorporate these different pieces into larger wholes, to keep shifting amounts of sonic information, weight and scope. As for my drumming, hopefully it continues to evolve! I continue to draw inspiration from non-drumset rhythm concepts, polyrhythmic traditions of Africa and the Diaspora, and particularly Cuban batá drumming these last five years.

TR: What about Pascal Niggenkemper, does he bring something different to the bass chair? How did you decide to have him join the band?

HE: Pascal first joined the band for a four-day residency in May 2015 when Eivind Opsvik was on the road with his band and Garth Stevenson had moved out of New York. Pascal and I play together in a band of Larry Ochs’ called Fictive Five, and we had a nice connection right away, personally as well as musically. He’s a super nice guy, and that’s a big part of it as well. Pascal is a fantastic interpreter, reader, creative pattern varier, and a very adventurous improviser. Playing grooves with him feels great, as does improvising textures. I would say his playing probably incorporates more extended techniques than the other Canada Day bassists. So he has this really far-reaching creativity plus that intangible thing which everybody loves about a great bass player: he makes the music feel good. It’s not that Pascal is doing something that wasn’t part of the job description for a bass player in Canada Day before, but he does it in his own unique ways, as Eivind and Garth also have.

TR: You didn’t talk about the song titles in your liner note this time, and it’s always amusing to hear how you came up with them.

HE: I started writing “After Several Snowstorms” one morning during the winter of 2014 when New York was getting dumped on. I think it had been our sixth deluge or something, and it was only January. The opening bass line (which quickly morphs during the opening tenor solo and returns briefly at the beginning of the full ensemble material) has three groups of two notes… a series of one-two punches. What can I say? We were feeling pretty battered by the weather. Despite growing up in Toronto, seven years living in LA has kind of softened me up when it comes to full-on winter. “Sometimes It’s Hard to Get Dressed in the Morning” and “Let’s Say it Comes in Waves” both reference our son Owen, and the challenges of parenting. “Life’s Hurtling Passage Onward,” What Can be the Set to the Side” and “What’s Equal to What” all come from the same Richard Ford passage that “The Arrangement of Unequal Things,” the first track on Golden State II, came from. That passage really stuck with me! “Meli Melo” is actually the French name for a Canadian snack mix called (in English) “Bits and Bites.” I started writing the book for Canada Day IV with a bunch of short pieces – some of which became duet pieces within longer structures, and two that ended up making up this last piece on the record – and they all had the title “Bits and Bites” with numbers assigned to them. As I tried to find a title for these last two parts that came together as one piece, for some reason an image of the red bag with “Bits and Bites” on one side and “Meli Melo” on the other came into my mind. Shreddies, peanuts, pretzels, and cheese crackers all mixed up together and over-salted. A little Canadian nostalgia, I guess.

TR: And speaking of amusing, I’ve always thought of Canada Day as a rather sly, quick-witted band, as well one that comes across as good-humoured, which is something else but equally valuable. And the combination does I think lead to a certain kind of humorous expression at times. Do you think much about humour in music, or specifically look for that tendency in the musicians you work with?

HE: This is an interesting question, and one I don’t think I’ve ever been asked. I appreciate the “sly, quick-witted” assessment. It reminds me of Nate Chinen’s NY Times review of a Canada Day gig a few years ago; he referred to my compositions as employing “sleight of hand.” I don’t think of the band as sly in a subversive way, but I do think we’re at our best when there’s a palpable sense of high-wire negotiation of written and improvised materials happening. I also think there is an important distinction to be made between “good-humoured” and “humour” in music. There’s a congeniality amongst us (which is, essentially, the same thing as good humour) that is also palpable. I value that looseness and trust within the group very much. If you’re not enjoying yourselves together, why bother? But I think good humor is different than straight-up humor, or camp. So I’d say I look for good humour, as in good nature, in the musicians I work with, but not necessarily humour. There was a period in my early 20s when I was pretty obsessed with 1970s Frank Zappa – more than other eras of Zappa – and I think what moved be about that period, especially on a record like Roxy and Elsewhere, was the sense that they were really enjoying the shared endeavor together, as much as the camp and hilarity of the lyrics or stage presentation. Nate, Matt, Chris, Pascal – these guys are all hilarious in their own ways – but not as on-stage comedians/vaudevillians/etc. What I value in each of their contributions is a seriousness of purpose, and executing it in good humour.

TR: While John Raham and I were mixing the record I couldn’t help chuckling from time to time at a soloist’s turn of phrase or perhaps an unexpected yet deliciously apt concatenation of mini-events, a collective moment of surprise and delight. These things are all going by quickly in the ongoing flow, and once in a while something elicits (in me at least) an overt response to what I would call humour in music. It may not have been intended as such, but that’s where the quick-wittedness comes in. So it’s not a vaudevillian or camp kind of humour, for sure, but as I’ve mentioned in the past I do think it’s sometimes connected to Matt’s love of the classic tenor sax greats and the way he sometimes references that tradition without blatantly imitating it or submerging his modernist sensibility in anything like a direct homage, and in Nate’s love of extended techniques (as well as the history of jazz trumpet) and in seeing how far he can sustain new, more “outrageous” forays and explorations into this territory. So for me I think this kind of humour is connected with a serious commitment to improvisation and developing a personal voice through improvisation (among other things), also to a kind of musical and personal disposition that’s always open to going “one step  beyond” just to see what comes of it.          

Anyway, moving on, you have a 40th birthday residency at the Stone from September 1-6 which includes the Canada Day IV release concert and also the return of the Canada Day Octet, two versions of Golden State, and a bunch of new initiatives including trios with Sylvie Courvoisier and Adam Rudolph, your first string quartet, and a quartet with Tony Malaby, Jeb Bishop and Jason Roebke. Tell us a bit about how you programmed those six days and what new directions of composition and improvisation you’ll be exploring.

HE: It’s funny, when Zorn offered me a week at The Stone (back in the summer of 2013!), I thought to myself, “I know, I’ll do a 40th birthday residency!” As it approaches I’ve found myself less inclined to think of it as a birthday milestone marker. Maybe it has to do with a realization that while 40 feels significant, it’s also kind of artificial to attach so much importance to a particular birthday year simply because there’s a zero as the second number. I’d been thinking about how to program the week for a very long time – pretty much from summer 2013 when John emailed – to February 2015, when I submitted a provisional lineup.

John challenges everyone to program a different project every set for twelve sets, so that was the template I had to work with. There was a collective trio with Jeb Bishop and Jason Roebke about ten years ago that did a few Europe tours and a recording. When I moved to New York for good in 2006, Tony Malaby and Angie Sanchez helped me find my first apartment (it was next door to them in Jersey City, on the same block as Nate Wooley as well). At the time I’d thought about trying to get a quartet going with Jeb, Tony and Jason. A European agent tried to fill in a tour for us that didn’t quite add up, and the idea moved to the back burner. For this residency, I’d thought to revive the trio with Jeb and Jasonm and Jeb reminded me of the quartet idea. Tony was into it, and that was that. We record in the studio the next day. The second night of the residency is devoted to Afro Cuban-related projects. The first set is a presentation of Lucumi songs and rhythms with New York batá pioneer John Amira, my teacher, and Lorne Watson, another of John’s students. Completely trad (but in a secular, instead of sacred, context/setting). The second set takes a diametrically opposed approach – skewed arrangements for trombone quartet (the amazing NYC ensemble Tilt Brass) of Afro Cuban songs and rhythms, in completely untraditional ways. The third night is the record release for Canada Day IV, and since I’d have the guys there already, I decided to re-convene the octet. I have some new octet sketches in the works, but we may end up playing music from the 2012 Octet record… we’ll see. The next night is my 40th birthday, September 4. We’ll do two new quartet versions Golden State, playing pieces from both records, the first set with Ben Goldberg and Marika Hughes, and the second with Sam Bardfeld and Chris Hoffman. Saturday night is an improvised duet with Vinnie Golia at 8pm, then at 10pm the virtuosic Mivos Quartet will premiere my first piece for string quartet, titled “Whatever Will Happen That Will Also Be.” The title comes from a recent NY Times magazine article about Jayalalithaa, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, and the shocking devotion of her followers. It’s a thirty-five minute piece (twenty-five minutes of written material and ten minutes of improvisation) that I’ve been working on for a year. As with previous through-composed endeavors (orchestral commissions in 2011 and 2013), the compositional process has been so rewarding. The main difference this time is the duration: those orchestral pieces were massive tasks because of the size of the ensembles. This task feels so massive (and self-imposed!) because of the length of the piece. It’s funny, you can get through a 45-minute set of improvised music and feel like it went by in a blink. I’ve been obsessing over these twenty-five minutes of written music for a year, and am still hesitant to hand over the “final” draft of the piece. Good thing they’re such amazing musicians, they’ll make it sound great! I’m taking them into the studio the next day to record the piece. The final night will probably feel like two versions of the 45-minute blink-of-an-eye improvised sets I just referred to. Adam Rudolph and I have a long association that goes back to the late 90s. We made an improvised trio recording with Sam Rivers in LA in 2003 and I played in his large ensemble for years, from its first performances in LA through its first ones in New York (we both moved to NYC around 2005-2006). I stopped playing in Organic Orchestra soon after that – I cut back on the amount of sideman activity to focus on leader endeavors – but have missed playing with Adam, so thought this would be a nice opportunity. And since The Stone has a lovely piano, I thought it would be interesting to involve a pianist each set in trio. Sylvie Courvoisier and James Hurt are very different pianists, and both will be excellent foils.