harris eisenstadt

drums
composition

interviews

by Nate Dorward
Signal to Noise
Winter 06 Issue 40

There's a lot of documentation for it's own sake in the current alt.jazz scene, as too many musicians and labels release a flood of minimally differ- entiated discs that begin to blur together: it can be hard to locate the genuinely original music among the clutter. In this environment drummer Harris Eisenstadt makes albums that can't help but stick out: they don't sound like anyone else's, and don't sound much like each other for that matter. I first came across his work through the misterioso chamber- jazz of his 2002 Newsonic release, Fight or Flight, a disc whose gently ringing, chiming soundscape (full of metal percussion, vibes and marimba) seems like a meditation on the stealthy passage of time - as Kobo Abe puts it in a passage quoted in the liner notes, "Time cannot be spurred on like a horse. But it is not so slow as a pushcart." It's a big jump from that disc to Eisenstadt's next two, both from 2004. Vista (on Meta) shows what he can do in a freeform setting: it's a improv date with Sam Rivers and percussionist Adam Rudolph, recorded off-the-cuff but as stark and powerful as if it were carved in granite. Jalolu is his tribute to West African music, recorded for CIMP a few months after a sojourn in the Gambia studying with the Mandinka kutiro drummers Jalamang Camara and Mamdy Danfa. Eisenstadt's agitated, morse-code tunes are modelled on West African hocketing ensembles, and feature the unruly three-trumpet front line of Paul Smoker, Taylor Ho Bynum and Roy Campbell plus baritone saxophonist Andy Laster. It's a disc that hits hard, not least because of the leader's backbeat- fuelled drumming.

Eisenstadt was born in Toronto in 1975, and first went to the States to attend Maine's Colby College. Originally he was there to play baseball and hockey, though that didn't last long - "I realized, 'What on earth am I doing?'" - and he quickly switched to English literature and music, homing in on jazz in his late teens: "I got into jazz backwards, like a lot of younger people do. I didn't grow up listening to Basie records and Ellington records. I got into Mahavishnu Orchestra records and Tony Williams' Lifetime, jazz-rock things. Getting into bebop and early jazz was from the back- door, through the transcendence of the 1960s jazz and finding connections between what people like 'Trane were doing and the kind of revolutionary things that bebop really stood for." While still enrolled at Colby, Eisenstadt spent a semester at New York's New School, then returned to the city after finishing his degree. He worked for Knitting Factory Records and absorbed as much of the New York jazz scene as he could, as well as spending a year studying with drummer Barry Altschul. "He had a lot of great things to say: he really instilled a very deep respect for tradition. He was big into old drum instruction books, like Charlie Wilcoxon and All-American Drum Solos - and at the same time [another exercise] would be, 'Make a sound. Make another sound.' So you'd sit there in front of your kit: click ding... bop ssshhh. He emphasized the creative sound- painting approach as much as being' able to play all the legit stuff. His philosophy was, learn all the legends, all the old stuff, and then try and put it together in your own way." Eisenstadt then got wind of the music program at CalArts, under the direction of Leo Smith.

"I figured I would go to CalArts and come right back to New York, and I ended up staying - I finished in '01 and I stayed for four more years, because there was a lot going on. There's a lot of elders in LA - Adam [Rudolph], Vinny Golia, Steuart Liebig, Leo - who are eager to work with young musicians, because there just isn't a huge community there, so if they see someone who's young and serious and can hang, there's a lot of opportunities, and also a lot of opportunities to write music and have it played. There's a great scene of people my age there doing stuff. It was a good place to solidify things and not feel the pressure of being in New York." Eisenstadt recently moved back to New York, though he's also been spending much of his time touring Europe in various ensembles, including a stint with Stephen Dillaine's one-man Macbeth show. Eisenstadt remarks that "it's barely enough of a living and it's definitely busy times," but it also suits his temperament: "I'm very much from the Don Cherry school of travel and get around and play with people and be out there as much as possible. I get antsy being in one place." His two newest releases mark the end of his West Coast sojourn and point the way forward. Ahimsa Orchestra, on Nine Winds, represents the modern-composition side of his music. Its two different 13-piece groups emphasize brass, percussion ani flute rather than saxophone, though there's also a sonic wildcard in the shape of Bill Horvitz and Noah Phillips's grinding noise-guitar.

"I've been very into Ives, and was trying to get at a simultaneity thin Except I have it easier, because combining improvisation and written music is immediate simultaneity - you don't have to write separate scores for multiple orchestras."

The other disc, The Soul and Gone (482 Music), finds Eisenstadt and fellow West Coaster, saxophonist/clarinettist Jason Mears, collaborating with players from the current Chicago scene trombonist Jeb Bishor (in excellent form after his recent break from performing), vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, guitarist Jeff Parker and bassist Jason Roebke. The disc's title alludes to the drummer's Jewish roots: "In Beneath the Underdog” Charles Mingus is on one of his rants, talking about Stan Levey the L.A. session drummer after one burning concert with Buddy Collette: 'That Jewboy sure had the soul and gone.' I identify with Levey's resilience." The album's co between gritty guitar and the vibes' coolness gives it a richly ambiguous sound; the pieces range from Braxtonian hyperbop to fractured rock'n'roll to a thoroughly unexpected homage to  Henryk Gorecki, and the results  are Eisenstadt's most varied and fully achieved album to date.