harris eisenstadt



His career is 'a work in progress'
by Michael Posner
April 24, 2007

Drummer/composer Harris Eisenstadt's 10-year immersion in music is nothing if not eclectic

When Toronto's Harris Eisenstadt went off to Maine's Colby College to start university in 1994, his focus was hockey and baseball, sports at which he had excelled.

"Those were my passions," the 31-year-old drummer, percussionist, composer and educator recalled in a recent interview. "But when I got there, I did a total about-face. I realized these were not the kind of guys I could spend four years with."

Eager to pursue more intellectual challenges, Eisenstadt quit both teams in his first year, studied music and world literature, and picked up an old hobby, drums, which he had learned to play in various high-school bands and teenage rock groups.

It was the start of an intense, 10-year immersion in music that has taken him from New York and Los Angeles, to London and Amsterdam, to Gambia and Senegal. In a mere decade, he has released five albums of his own and played sideman on 35 others, working with such artists as trombonist Connie Bauer, saxophonist John Butcher, guitarist Nels Cline, saxophonist Lol Coxhill, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and the late jazz musician Elton Dean (famous, among other things, for giving his first name to Reginald Dwight, the keyboardist in John Baldry's Bluesology band, now better known as Elton John).

Eisenstadt's work is nothing if not eclectic. He has written pieces for African horn and drum ensembles, medium and large-size chamber orchestras, Javanese dance troupes, experimental animation and theatre (he provided musical accompaniment for Tony award winner Stephen Dillane's's touring production of a one-man Macbeth). He also played drums in the film Wedding Crashers and contributed to its score and several others. He has appeared on albums with guitarist Noah Phillips and clarinetist David Rothbaum and on several records with Adam Rudolph's Organic Orchestra, a world-music group with a dozen percussionists and a dozen woodwinds.

This year alone, he'll be part of four new albums, including The Convergence Quartet, with Alex Hawkins, Taylor Ho Bynum and Dominic Lash; Build An Ark, with Big Black, Adam Rudolph, Nate Morgan and Dwight Tribble; Tin/Bag Quartet with Kris Tiner, Mike Baggetta and Brian Walsh; and his own composition, Harris Eisenstadt: The All Seeing Eye + Octets, with Chris Dingman, Marc Lowenstein, Andrew Pask, Daniel Rosenboom and bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck, who is Eisenstadt's wife.

Reviewing one of Eisenstadt's early CDs, Last Minute of Play in This Period -- a title inspired by his memories of Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens -- Cadence Magazine's Michael Rosenstein wrote: "The drummer knows how to propel the music while keeping a flexible sense of time that floats across the pulse. Eisenstadt is worth keeping an eye out for."

A graduate of Upper Canada College, Eisenstadt played his first drum there at the age of 10, in the school basement. Later, he took private lessons, but was not, by his own confession, "the greatest student. I didn't really take it seriously."

Until college, his musical tastes were largely mainstream, but when he re-encountered Elvin Jones, John Coltrane and Tony Williams, he told one interviewer, "It just completely floored me ... there seemed to be this kind of transcendence going on there that went beyond what I knew. The power of Elvin Jones, man, just completely overtook me."

Eisenstadt had heard their music before, but until then, "it hadn't made much of an impression. All of a sudden, I found myself devouring their records. It turned me on more than any rock record, John Bonham or Led Zeppelin, ever had."

Eisenstadt: Hearing a Ghanaian ensemble one day at CalArts,
‘It completely blew me away. It changed my life.'
(Satinder Singh)

One summer in Toronto, he studied improv with Toronto composer and saxophonist David Mott.

"He impressed me a lot," Mott recalls. "There's a unique and delicate beauty to his way of playing, although he can certainly play forcefully too. This allowed for lots of detail and nuance, which I really appreciate in a musician. I'm reminded of both Gerry Hemingway and Jesse Stewart, although Harris has his own sound ... He's immensely talented ... His potential will only be limited by the vagaries of life."

After college, Eisenstadt moved to New York, studied with percussionist Barry Altschul and started playing gigs. A friend referred him to a new program at the California Institute of Fine Arts and he spent two years there, on scholarship, studying everything from West African music to the works of John Cage.

"I remember walking through the hall the first day at CalArts and hearing a Ghanaian ensemble and the drumming is reverberating and it completely blew me away. It changed my life."

Indeed, Eisenstadt later spent several months living in a small village in Gambia, studying with a local drum master. "The whole idea of putting music on stage is such a Western concept," he says. "Over there, it's more integrated into communal life -- it's recreational or ceremonial or it's part of the ritual of secret societies, in those countries that have them."

His teacher spoke no English and Eisenstadt at first spoke no Mandinka. "but it was amazing how much communication we were able to get."

He credits Wadada Leo Smith with teaching him the importance of 20th-century composers and of seeing music as part of an art tradition, "part of a larger continuum."

After graduating, Eisenstadt stayed in Los Angeles for five more years, working with the likes of Smith, Adam Rudolph, Vinny Golia and Steuart Liebig. Because the city's jazz community is small, there were, he says, many opportunities to write music and have it played.

At the same time, Eisenstadt felt the need to travel, both to continue to learn and to earn money. Last fall, he moved back to the East Coast. He lives in Jersey City across the Hudson from New York.

"There is a jazz scene in L.A., but for new, more adventurous jazz, it wasn't the place. For better or worse, New York is still thought of as the centre of the jazz universe and with that comes increased exposure for Europe."

His parents, who run a boutique public-relations agency in Toronto, welcomed his unusual career decision, but asked, "How are you going to make a living?" That, Eisenstadt concedes, is still "a work in progress. Things are month to month. I have great months and so-so months. But each year is better and I find more opportunities."

The challenge, he recognizes, is to reach the next level. It requires "a combination of aggressiveness and patience. I hope I'm not a hustler in the worst sense of the word, but I'm always looking for work. So I think you have to be beating on the door and be receptive when your own door is being beaten down."

Playing with the Bill Horvitz band, Eisenstadt appears in Toronto May 1 at the Now Lounge, and in Buffalo May 3 at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Centre.