harris eisenstadt

drums
composition

 


 

jalolu

 

When Ornette Coleman and his quartet first confronted bebop and its descendants about its constant need to explain its harmonic undercurrents – flushing chordal instruments in order to free the evolution of melodic and rhythmic ideas – could he have imagined such a surprising group as this one, a rambunctious, brass-heavy ensemble with no instruments able to play more than one note at a time? When he turned to Morocco to teach us that native American music – from free jazz to funk – could benefit from cross-pollination with other cultures’ musical traditions, could he have foreseen a set like this, where fundamental, African grooves flirt with the fringes of free jazz? And finally, when he tried to tell us – for decades now – that freedom should be an action and not an adjective, could he have expected that a group of musicians, many half his age or less, would take that lesson so strictly to heart, combining traditions to discover an arresting variety of new and noteworthy textures? No telling, but it is mighty promising to see that on this formidable set by the young drummer Harris Eisenstadt, there is such delivery on the promises of musical freedom – through composition, cross-pollination, and committed individualism, uncovering a fascinating, full-bodied blend.

Among the Mandinka of West Africa (where Eisenstadt spent a couple of months last year studying drumming), the word jalolu means “musicians” – but that carries with it much broader implications than it does in our culture. Music serves an absolutely critical social function, or rather functions: from marking the mourning strains of grief, to exploding joyously in celebration, to simply accompanying the comings and goings of everyday life. All of those are present on this interesting volume. But it’s more, too – it’s with a great deal of respect that Eisenstadt refers to his band mates here as jalolu; they are integral and interwoven, and it gives an idea of the communal fiber of these compositions. Not just in the forms of the tunes themselves – where rocking group riffs interlock, yet are broken down and reform through individual interjections – but also in the instrumentation itself. Drums, a deep reed, and a trio of trumpets (or cornet or flugelhorn): such a thin tonal palette (in theory) means that members of the ensemble must step up in a variety of creative ways to keep the pieces moving. It is a community effort, to be sure, but a highly successful one. Laster’s baritone sax primarily honks along the bottom end, providing rhythmic thrust, like on the straightforward dance passages of “Boogie on Lenjeno” or “Mwindo.” The brass players can either groove forward in tandem, providing harmonic shading, or scramble simultaneously in different directions. They are most effective when playing these two approaches off each other – like on “Ahimsa,” all three state the snappy staccato theme in unison, setting their phrases up against Laster’s energetic bleats and blasts, Ho Bynum and Laster joust for a while individually, then Smoker and Campbell fragment into a free form duet of their own, which picks up steam to lead into the final theme statement. This loose, constantly changing feel – apart but together, individual but integrated – lends the session a great variety of textures, but always keeps it attached to an irresistible, pulsing core. This play between the individual freedom of American improvisation and the communal strength of African rhythms gives the disc its most unique moments.

But every great community must have its leader, and Eisenstadt does an admirable job in this regard. His beats – both when charging ahead with ecstatic polyrhythms, and when loosening up into percussive impressionism – drive the ensemble as a whole. His accents on snare, toms, and cymbals lead the way, deftly sluicing one meter into another, providing an outline for the rhythmic direction of the piece, and discovering new ways to mix his widely varied influences. When the horns and Laster break out with a unison groove – like in the opening of “Mwindo” – it is his accents that tell them where to place the emphasis; when they chop a theme up into separate parts – like on “Ahimsa” – his dynamics are like cues for when to enter and exit; or most importantly, throughout the various sections of his compositions – like on the constantly shifting “Jumpin’ In” – it is Eisenstadt’s stop-start bass bombs, increasingly frenetic snare rolls, or sudden out and out groove that gives an idea of the dynamic arc to the soloist. Without his subtle switch-ups and rhythmic hand-offs along the way, it is hard to imagine these other four musicians hanging so closely together, and delivering such a direct communal message. That message comes through the variety and vibrancy of the elements combined here, which only make sense as a whole when filtered through Eisenstadt’s rhythmic lens. The hovering, metrically and melodically obtuse silences of “Go” alongside the crowd-pleasing, interlocking riffs and fiery solo flights of “Mwindo”? Absolutely, when Eisenstadt is at the helm, hearing what his creative community has to say, but ultimately deciding where to go from there – listening, leading, and lighting it up with a fierce set of African-influenced grooves.

I’m not prepared to say that this is a brilliant masterpiece, an absolute classic that is a perfect demonstration of what Eisenstadt is trying to do. It is, however, a wholly unique experiment, a supremely enjoyable sign that the drummer is an instrumentalist, composer, and bandleader with fresh ideas well worth keeping an eye on. Marc Rusch’s signature engineering works well here, as it places the different trumpeters in easily identifiable left-to-right positions in your speakers, to allow for easy identification. Also, producer Robert Rusch made the wise decision to include alternate takes of the swaggering “Seruba,” a collection of shifting, staccato rhythms and exuberant melodies, and “Jumpin’ In,” an explosive trumpet experiment, closest to traditional free jazz; both inclusions exhibit the high level of variation and spontaneous invention that marks the playing here, and that can be forgotten amidst the controlled chorus riffs and satisfying rhythmic repetition of the pieces themselves. That is a tight, tough balance, and Eisenstadt should be commended for carrying it so nonchalantly on the swift pulse of his percussive shoulders." - Charles Walker, Sudden Thoughts

 

 

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