harris eisenstadt

drums
composition

interviews

Harris Eisenstadt Interview
by Nate Dorward
Toronto, August 2005 - Spring 2006

I wanted to begin with the two most recent discs, The Soul and Gone and Ahimsa Orchestra. They're very different; I guess you could say one presents your “jazz” side, the other your “new music” side.

As you say, they're very different; it's just fortuitous that they should come out at the same time. The orchestra disc is a development on the Fight or Flight music, trying to write some longer-form music dealing with 20th-century music and influences. I've been very into Ives and trying to get at a simultaneity thing, except I have it easier than Ives did, because combining improvisation and written music is immediate simultaneity you don't have to write two separate scores for two separate orchestras. They're live recordings I wouldn't mind having another crack at some of the stuff but it's hard to get everybody organized two 30-minute pieces. The Bay Area ensemble is from March 2004 and the LA group from January 2005. I feel like my more chamber-oriented music is trying to find ways to marry improv and written music in non-traditional ways, trying to find ways to superimpose the two instead of head/solos and the usual more jazz-oriented approaches of improvisation and writing.

The Chicago record came about because I had a gig at the Chicago Cultural Center with that sextet. I met Jeb Bishop, Jason Roebke and Jason Adasiewicz a couple years ago and really loved their playing, and wanted to try and do something with them, adding some others to the mix. So LA woodwind player Jason Mears came with me to Chicago and we recorded with Jeb and Jeff Parker and Jason Adasiewicz and Roebke. I wanted it to be a more groove-based project there's a little swing, some rock, not so much the chamber thing although there's some of that too. I love the instrumentation. There's such a fertile community in Chicago and people are very willing to work, which is really nice, cause I didn't know most of those guys till we started playing together. They were all very open.

There's a track on the CIMP date called “Ahimsa #2,” which I gather from your liner notes is one of a series. I take it there's a connection to the orchestra disc?


Yes, although the composition has very little to do with the orchestra. The sketches just kind of happened at the same time. It was spring 2003-ish and the March tour was on the way and, not that I'm a hippy 1960s holdover (though in some ways I am I suppose), but I just think that there's a lot of unnecessary violence in the world, and that an overt political connection between music and issues that concern you is an important thing. [The word “ahimsa” translates as “non-violence” Ed.] People like Leo Smith and Charlie Haden have been big influences in linking their music to larger social issues. Dave Douglas too. I just think that if you're not happy with the way something's going and the way that you can express it is through art or music or expression, then go for it.

Could you say a little about your methods in the Ahimsa Orchestra compositions?

The two pieces are structured to give a lot of space for group (“Non-Violence”) and solo and group (“Relief”) improvisations. The written material in both pieces comes from pitch sets, and in both cases I thought of each chunk of writing as signposts along a long road. There's often improvisation continuing as some writing comes in, or an improv will fade out as some written material begins, and once in a while an improviser is cued to end right as some written material starts. In both pieces, I was looking for ways to create simultaneity and juxtaposition between composed and improvised material.

Let's circle back here. You were born in Toronto in 1975.

Yeah, I grew up and went to school here, and then left to go to college in Maine, actually for sports hockey and baseball, at Colby College. And I quit both immediately in my first season, and resumed playing drums and writing music as my life's calling. It's sort of funny how it all turned out. When I got to college for sports I thought: “Wait a minute, what the hell am I doing? This stuff isn't for me, hanging out with a bunch of meatheads, going to hockey practice at 6 a.m. I want to be getting into my literature classes and 20th-century music and taking music theory and practicing my instrument all the time!”

Did you have useful instruction as a child, or are you mostly self-taught?

I had instruction as a kid, and like most people my age got into playing in rock bands in high school and stuff like that. I have to say I'm surprised in a certain way to find myself here; I had a lot of really uninspiring music instruction, the proverbial jaded band directors and concert band and wind ensembles and junior high stage band and all that stuff that makes a lot of people not want to play music. Not that I was the most diligent young music student, but I think it's a big responsibility for a music teacher to inspire a kid to want to learn more or take it seriously or have fun with it, and for me it was quite the opposite. In a way my rediscovery of music as my passion seemed all the more solidified since I'd had these totally uninspiring childhood music experiences.

When did you get into jazz?

It was a college thing. I was about 19 years old, and I'd already heard these guys but they didn't make a big impression on me. Then I heard Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, in the context of Milesquintet and Coltrane. And it just completely floored me. I was listening to whatever else everyone was listening to, and there seemed to be this kind of transcendence going on there that went beyond what I knew. I mean, you can feel transcendent listening to Pink Floyd as well, and there's great music around the world that can move you, but at that time, and particularly with the drummers, there was something that clicked, or switched on or something. The power of Elvin Jones, man. Just completely overtook me.

Were you already at this point into the new music/classical end of things?

No, that was a little later. Two people really turned me on to 20th-century composers. One of the summers I was home from college I took some composition lessons with David Mott, a Toronto baritone saxophonist who teaches at York, and who's very into Eastern martial arts. He turned me onto Ives and Takemitsu. The other person was Gerry Hemingway. I took a lesson when I was in New York right before working for Knitting Factory Records. I'd just gotten serious again about playing, and went out and spent a day with him in his home in New Jersey. He turned me onto Stockhausen and also onto West African music, which has been a big influence. He turned me onto a lot of things that day. I was like 20, very eager to be twisted around and opened up.

You got lucky, because there are so many people who get hooked on jazz and only want to play the retro stuff.

Coming out of rock, I kind of got into jazz backwards like a lot of younger people do. I didn't grow up listening to Basie and Ellington records. It wasn't part of my life. My parents like jazz but it's mostly because I'm interested in it. I got into Mahavishnu Orchestra records and Tony WilliamsLifetime, jazz-rock things. Like, “Huh, well there's no singer, and they're not playing songs but they're still rocking...” Getting into bebop and early jazz was through the back door, through the transcendence of 1960s jazz and finding connections between what people like Trane were doing in the 1960s and the kind of revolutionary things bebop really stood for. I've never been a serious lover of classic hard bop. I respect that those guys all play their ass off and it's fascinating to hear someone burn like that, but I think of all the stylists of the 1950s, and besides people like Blakey and Mingus and Monk and Miles they've never been the centre of what interested me about this music. It was the innovators, people who combined disparate elements and made their art in the face of adversity and found a way to get their music advanced of their own accord. Grassroots organizations like the AACM and BAG, the aesthetics of self-production, of do what you do and believe in it no matter who gives a damn, influenced me a lot more than the strict virtuosity of bop. I love that stuff, but when I think about what my priorities are it's not just that I can burn through Clifford Brown tunes. It's having the instrumental virtuosity enough to just get your ideas out so you don't have to worry about it.
I think there are larger issues than just how well you play your axe. I never understood how these 18-year-olds around me only wanted to play exactly like some bebop guy and didn't care about other arts or anything. When I was an undergrad at Colby College I spent my third year, second semester as a visiting student at the New School, which was great Reggie Workman was there, Andrew Cyrille was there, Joe Chambers was there, I had these great teachers. But a lot of the people around me were all these close-minded beboppers, man. That narrow vision of things I never understood, and I felt pretty alienated for it. Thank goodness I was in a place like New York, where every night I could go hear some real music, real art being made. I went to hear every drummer I could. I was 20 years old, and it'd be like, Monday nights at the Zinc Bar Tain Watts was playing, and if he wasn't Al Foster would be subbing for him. And then the next night I'd go down to the Knit and hear Jim Black. And the next night Susie Ibarra with David Ware, and the night after that Kenny Wollesen, and after that it'd be Gerald Cleaver, who'd just got to town, and Mike Sarin, one of my real great influences, sweet guy, he was there. And the older guys I'd go hear Ralph Peterson, Tom Rainey, Joey Baron, Kevin Norton, Hemingway, Tani Tabbal, Billy Hart. My education came not really from school but from going to hear all these people. David Murray's big band for a week in a row. Oliver Lake's big band, with his son Gene on drums that guy is unbelievable. Tony Oxley came to town with a trio. It was just a powerful time. I was fortunate that I didn't happen to go to jazz school in Iowa or at Humber College [in Toronto].

They recently had Tom Rainey up at Humber for a workshop by Mark Helias's Open Loose.

Beautiful. I think that more and more people are realizing it's 2006 now. No-one's going to sound like Elvin, no-one's going to sound like Jack DeJohnette or Tony Williams. I think it's much more about putting together all the inspiration you can from all these great people who've come before you. If you're not going to sound like yourself what are you doing?

You mentioned you worked for Knitting Factory Records. What were you doing for them?

I left Toronto in 94, went to college in Maine until 98, moved to New York for a year right after that, spent a semester during that time in Maine at the New School in New York and worked for Knitting Factory Records doing radio promotions and gruntwork, packing envelopes, whatever. Michael Dorf will always be legendary for treating his employees like slaves, so I just took advantage of self-generated employee options such as using the Alternate Lounge to play piano and write music during work hours, and practicing brushes on a practice pad instead of calling radio stations to track records. Then I went to CalArts because [percussionist] Adam Rudolph turned me onto the fact that Leo Smith had a program there. I got in touch with Leo and I managed to get a scholarship to go get a Master of Fine Arts. It was an opportunity to spend two years working with him, which was really a magical time. I also got to work a lot with Vinny Golia, who was teaching there too, and got further into West African music there were wonderful teachers from Ghana and studied some Indonesian music. Not enough unfortunately! I also played a lot of 20th-century percussion, which I hadn't done. I gave up on orchestral percussion in high school, failed my little Bach marimba etude tests. At CalArts I got into playing Cage and Harrison and Varèse. I got to play Ionization, things like that. CalArts was really cool. I figured I would go to CalArts and come right back to New York, and I ended up staying I finished in 2001 and I stayed for four more years, because there was a lot going on. There are a lot of elders in LA Adam, Vinny Golia, Steuart Liebig, Leo people 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 are a lot of opportunities, opportunities to write music and have it played by people. There's a great young scene of people my age there doing stuff. So it was a good place to solidify things and not feel the pressure of being in New York. Having said that, it's now time I moved back to the city; I don't feel the need to be on the West Coast anymore and I feel like, criminal though it may be, there's a real serious underexposure there.

I was surprised to see there are already about 30 records in your discography so far.

Yeah, though only five as a leader. Several studio recordings, and I played on some movie scores, including The Wedding Crashers there's a klezmer track in there. Boxes of Water is a collective quartet with [guitarist] Noah Phillips, [reed player] Corey Wright and [bassist] Aaron Cohen that's a little bit defunct now, but we made one record for Evander. Noah and I have a duo out on an LA label called EMR, Experimental Musical Research, a little rock / improv duo coming out of our mutual respect and admiration for Nels Cline and all the work he's done combining the worlds of improvisation and noise / sound / rock. There are three records on Questionable Records, a little do-it-yourself label my friends Travis Just and Matt Richelson and I had in New York when I lived there in 1999. There's a duo with David Rothbaum, an amazing contra-alto clarinettist and analog synth player, that has a record out. And there are several records of Adam Rudolph's Organic Orchestra, a world-music-oriented group with a dozen percussionists, a dozen woodwinds, no saxophones, the flagship of which was a recording we did with Yusef Lateef. That was really wonderful because of this 85 year old guy, blowing. There is a live record with Simon Fell and Ian Smith on Bruce's Fingers, K3. Vinny Golia's started a new quintet that I'm a part of, called Jazz for Models. We did some festivals last year, and hopefully we'll record at some point.

Fight or Flight and Jalolu, the first discs of yours I encountered, seem to present two very different sides to your music they barely seemed the work of the same person.

I think Fight or Flight is a precursor to this orchestra stuff. In addition to all these 20th-century composers, people like Braxton and Leo and Globe Unity are just as important an inspiration, and to some extent, King Übü, some of the European large ensembles, Barry Guy's groups. I love all that music. I feel like there's not just one kind of compositional tendency that I lean towards, but several. Jalolu was some sort of homage to a continent full of thousands of different kinds of musics. Horn hocketing musics from West Africa and Central Africa have been blowing me away forever. I'm inspired by a number of different kinds of compositional approaches, so why not investigate as many of them as I can with enough diligence to come up with some good results. I don't know how much I'm really attuned to his music, but someone like Don Byron has always been impressive to me, the fact that he could exist very capably in a number of worlds.

Are you, like Byron, attracted to klezmer?

I love klezmer music it's my background, ethnically: I did a lot of klezmer gigs playing for Jewish weddings, retirement homes, you name it but not to the point that I feel I would need to make a klezmer record. I don't think that eclecticism for eclecticism's sake is very interesting.

You mentioned hocketing. Have you heard Louis Andriessen's piece Hoketus?

No, but I did just return from the Adelaide Festival of Arts, and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta played a beautiful Andriessen piece for soprano and chamber orchestra. Gorgeous! The New Dutch Swing folks are big influences: humour is a very important element that's missing in a lot of music. You can be as serious as your life but enjoy yourself too. I love working with Achim Kaufman, a great German pianist who lives in Amsterdam, and Eric Boeren, Toby Delius and Mary Oliver. I've played in Amsterdam a few times now and I look forward to returning. I feel a lot of affinity for that particular place.

You seem to work in many different scenes with many different player's it's the reverse of the David S. Ware phenomenon where you stick to the same small circle.

I definitely like the concept of an inner circle of people who you trust most and feel an affinity with, but I'm also inspired by so many players and like working with so many different people it's just the way it ends up. I do miss the thrill back from high school or the college rock band where you're playing with the same guys, developing one thing. Noah Phillips and I have a duo, which is a totally collaborative project we rehearse, it's a band, not one person's project with sidemen but he lives in the Bay Area now, unfortunately, so we're cut off from each other, though I'm sure we'll continue albeit in a sort of project-oriented way. And I miss that, I love it very much, but I just feel pulled in a lot of different directions. Not to the point hopefully of stretching myself thin, but just inspired to work in different contexts.

Do you plan to keep the Soul and Gone band together, or the Jalolu band?

It's hard to do. That band played at the Wire Festival in September 2005, although Jason Mears moved to Japan so my partner [bassoonist] Sara Schoenbeck subbed for him. Jason Roebke the bass player was in Japan at the time too, so Jason Ajemian subbed for him. So already that band is defunct. And I don't think I'm going to make another Jalolu record. As much time and energy as goes into these projects, I want to continue moving.

How did the trio disc with Adam Rudolph and Sam Rivers come about?

That was just a total stroke of luck. Sam was in town with his trio playing at the Jazz Bakery in LA for a week and I went to hear him one night. And we were just talking after the set, and it's like, “You guys have a studio?” Adam has a small backyard studio and set of nice mics, and an engineer came over, and Sam was just one of the most gracious and humble people. He'd just turned 80 the night before and he felt like getting together with some people and playing. So we sat around, had a nice lunch, hung out for a couple hours, got to know each other a little bit and went in there, three or four hours maybe tops. And he blew us away, man. We were just trying to hang, really truly he was blowing circles around us. He's 80, and the guy had the kind of energy that I can only hope to have at that age. He's not sitting in an old folkshome watching Fox News he's out there, making music. It was a great experience. There was an agent for that band, but amazingly we never played a single gig. I guess it was a totally surreal six hours, and it might just have to stay that way.

Have you followed his work as a composer and arranger?

Absolutely, a big influence he's a complete master both as a composer and improviser. I knew Sam from “Beatrice” from jazz school of course, and also from that great Tony Williams record Lifetime, and I think I'd heard Winds of Manhattan. I knew him as this legendary avant great-grandfather figure and then Barry Altschul hipped me to a lot of records that weren't on CD at the time that Impulse Trio Live stuff hadn't come out and it was still somewhat obscure. He turned me onto all that Sam/Dave Holland/Barry trio stuff, and the RivBea Orchestra records.

Tell me a bit about your studies with Altschul. He was the drummer of the 1970s and then he seemed to disappear in the 1980s. And now he's reemerged with a few recordings.

When I was working at the Knitting Factory I opened the paper one day and there was “Barry Altschul, solo percussion at the Internet Café”.. This little hole in the wall in the East Village that used to have great music all the time, gone now. Barry Altschul, at the Internet Café? No way, man! Conference of the Birds will always be on a shortlist of my favourite records. Very inspiring, compositionally, in its simplicity, but also that incredible pairing of Braxton and Sam Rivers. Only Dave Holland at that time could have brought them together. I don't think they've done anything since just kind of different souls, I guess. But meanwhile there's this incredible drummer, Barry Altschul, this totally haunting, simple childlike but not childlike marimba playing too this complete percussionist thing. I remember reading once, someone said he was “capable of a wonderful conceptual abstraction and sound and colour but also a complete melodic straightness of line too.” He can swing his ass off. He's much more on top of the beat than I've ever been, maybe due to my debt to Elvin, but Conference of the Birds was a huge inspiration. So when I saw he was playing solo I went to hear him, and it was him, 20, 25 years on, without the afro and the beard all grey, a short little wizened dude like Billy Crystal from the Princess Bride. He was teaching a little bit at Sarah Lawrence; it was the late 90s and he was just reemerging. He'd lived in France for most of the 1980s and early 1990s, but he'd kept his place in New York, and came back. I studied with him, twice a week, for a year, just about when he was starting to try and get out there and start playing again. He had a lot of great things to say. He really instilled a very deep respect for tradition; he's probably more of a jazzer than anyone really credits him for his heart is really in bebop. His teachers were Charlie Persip and Sam Ulano, the great drum reading teacher. He was a very didactic guy as it turned out; he had a method. He had twelve things typed up on a 70s typewriter that he still taught, and number one was this upstroke thing he did, this kind of very meditative slow warm-up thing he'd get you into. He was big into old drum instruction books, like Charlie Wilcoxon's All-American Drum Solos, old school stuff, man. That would be number two on his list read all these old books and at the same time number three would be: “Make a sound... make another sound.” That's the famous Barry Altschul practice thing, you sit there in front of your kit like, “Click... Ding... Bop... Ssshhh”. He emphasized the creative sound-painting approach as much as being able to play the All-American Drum Solos and all the legit stuff. A very jazz-based kind of guy. I remember reading an interview with him from the late 70s right when he went out on his own with the trio with Ray Anderson and Mark Helias, the Brahma band. Someone asked him: “Is there any more new music that exists?” and he said that for him, there was no more new music, only new ways of putting together what already existed. I don't know if that's totally true, but I think that's basically his philosophy as a teacher: learn all the legends, all the old stuff, and then try and put it together in your own way.

What did you study with Leo Smith?

I happened to go out to college when he had his own program for the first year, called “African-American Improvisational Music”. He was teaching things that were very rooted in African-American music and experience, but with an eye to everything. Students in his program took private composition lessons with him and played in his ensembles. He taught one seminar each semester, one on Sun Ra, one on Billie Holiday, one on Bob Marley. I also did an independent study on Steve McCall. I think it was Gerry [Hemingway] who hipped me to Leo. When he was in New Haven in the 70s with Anthony Davis and George Lewis and Gerry and Wes Brown, all guys who were my age at the time or younger and just getting their thing together, Leo was already very much into teaching these guys about Ellington and William Grant Still and W.C. Handy, the real origins of black American music. He's actually very similar to Barry in a way; he's a consummate traditionalist: “Reassemble what you need to do in your own way but check out the history deeply”. Leo turned me onto a lot of 20th-century composers, which reinforced a lot of what David Mott and Gerry had got me into. But also art as a larger concept than music I think that's really ultimately Leo's greatest lesson: being a musician or composer/improviser, you're part of an art tradition, not just music tradition. Leo taught me to think about larger issues, the Max Roach ideal, see music as part of a larger continuum. That totally clicked with me because I was a literature major and music minor in college anyways.
I feel a deep affinity to Africa and the African Diaspora; that's something Leo instilled in me. I've been reading a lot of African and African American history. I've got into reading more histories and non-fiction in the last several years. I had my fiction and poetry blinders on for a long time and started trying to read histories and stuff, and reading about Amilcar Cabral, the liberator of Guinea-Bissau, and a really interesting book called Myth of the Negro Past. The author, Herskovits, was a Jewish anthropologist, a very 1920s/1930s colonial anthropologist kind of guy. And there's Gary Greenberg's The African Origins of the Jewish People, and Martin Bernal's Black Athena. Just reading about the history of black experience, which is not my own background. It's something Leo turned me onto, and also Steve Coleman. I read a lot more African history than Jewish history.

But there's also a long history of Jewish input into jazz?

Sure. Hence the title of the 482 Music record. Charlie Mingus, in Beneath the Underdog, is on one of his rants in that crazy book, talking about Stan Levey, the LA drummer: “That Jewboy sure had the soul and gone,” he said after one burning concert with Buddy Collette. I thought it was kind of fitting. Again, I'm not a practicing Jew, it's not my bag. I'm into the family tradition and background aspects of Judaism.

How did you meet Steve Coleman?

He came to CalArts while I was there. They give the Alpert Award to one person every year. The first year I was there it was George Lewis, so I got to hang out with George, and the second year was Steve, so I got to hang with Steve, which was great. He turned me on to this fascinating book, not Black Athena at the time, but I can't remember the name now, unfortunately I couldn't even get through this thing, man, it was like philosophy filtered through an African lens with numerology and architecture. It was some heavy book, man. Steve's a heavy guy. I don't know if I always love the results of what he does musically, but I particularly dug Genesis & the Opening of the Way. He's got his direction and he's been doing that forever, and respect to him for that. I also admire the fact that he's made mp3s of out of print recordings of his music available on his website. Because he's got a major body of work, and it's hip that he's making it accessible to people.

You had said you started out playing conventional rock Pink Floyd and so forth. Does that kind of music still interest you?
Do you follow the contemporary pop scene?

Absolutely, though I'm not as well versed in it as I probably once was. I was slated to play at that Wire festival with Acid Mothers Temple, but they had to cancel due to visa problems. Bummer! Akron Family and Eats Tapes were on the bill that night, so it was us with an indie rock band and an experimental electronica duo. It made for a very nice evening. Ty Braxton played solo as well, amazing stuff with pedals, guitar, and processed voice. It fascinates me there's this huge indie scene, semi-indie, kind of indie, a little bit of major label, whatever. There are hundreds of bands with real followings touring all over the place, and I think that's great. This is not Britney Spears / Christina Aguilera bullshit, this is not overproduced music, this is real, raw music people are making. I don't know why alt.jazz and composed/improvised new music has a harder time getting that kind of attention. But, yeah, I got hip to the Montreal scene and Godspeed! and all these bands years ago. Don Caballero: great, killing math-rock stuff that blows me away all the time. Nels is always hipping me to new rock things I never knew about: Low and all these bands. I like Wilco, I think Nels adds a lot to it. I think it was a little bit Wilco-lite before he got there. He's writing with them now and he's a regular member of the band. I saw him live with them live with him and he was burning, man. I love the Dirty Three, Cat Power, early Soundgarden, Will Oldham. I'm always attuned to the rock thing, but I could always be more. I don't just listen to one kind of stuff: it's just one of many things. I flip through the Wire and I'm like: “Who on earth are these guys?” And I'm still trying to get a handle on what's going on with hiphop. There's a million incredible MCs and DJs doing interesting stuff. Madlib, Victor Vaughn, J Dilla, all these folks / pseudonyms. There are too many to sort out who's who and what's what, but it all sounds great.

What's your next move?

I'll be in New York in April, including some quintet stuff with [trumpeter] Nate Wooley, [saxophonist] Michael Attias, [Rhodes player] Kevin Uehlinger and [bassist] Keith Witty. Kevin and Keith and I play in a trio as well, and hopefully that trio will do a record at some point, as well as the quintet. Then there are gigs in New York with Andrew Barker, the drummer from Little Huey who's also a happening cellist, and a CD release party for an imminent Clean Feed release, The Diplomats, a trio with Steve Swell and Rob Brown. In May I have a Colorado / New Mexico tour with Mark Weaver's group Brassum. Mark's a great tuba player / composer from Albuquerque. Then Adam Rudolph's Organic Orchestra is doing a ten-night residency in LA. In June I'm going to Halifax; I've been commissioned along with Barry Guy to write a piece for and play with [Halifax-based saxophonist] Paul Cram's Upstream Orchestra. I'm supposed to tour Europe at the end of October with Jeb Bishop and Jason Roebke, then some British musicians are bringing Taylor Ho Bynum and me over for a UK tour in November. I'm very much from the Don Cherry school: travel and get around and play with people and be out there as much as possible. I get antsy being in one place.