Avant Songster: A Chat With Harris Eisenstadt
Torontoan jazz drummer Harris Eisenstadt is a prolific leader and composer—but almost everything you hear from him is in a completely different musical context from what you heard last. Or at least that's the way it sounds at first. Whether he's doing free jazz, chamber music, or African folk, Eisenstadt says he consistently takes the same approach. Ahead of his performance tonight at Twins with his quintet Canada Day (so named for Eisenstadt's Canadian origins, and because the band's first gig was July 1), he spoke to Arts Desk about his constants and differences, working with his bassoonist wife, and touring a new album.
Washington City Paper: Does the band have a specific concept behind it?
Harris Eisenstadt: Yeah. We just finished our second record [Canada Day II (Songlines)], and we’re working on music for our third record; each book of music is made up of songs. I always conceive of them as songs rather than long-form compositions. There might be several sections, but rather than writing 15 minutes of music with several sections, it’s more like eight pieces that end up making up a record.
WCP: It’s rather an avant-garde sounding group, but you’re saying it’s not a free group, per se.
HE: Yeah, totally. The musicians in the group—particularly saxophonist Matt Bauder, who I’ve been playing with for years now—have interests and backgrounds in music without preconceived structures, in texture-based music rather than based in terms of melody or harmony. But they also have really strong backgrounds in jazz melody and harmony. So the way that they weave those things together is what I love about having them in this context.
Now that’s true for my work, too: I come from playing rock 'n' roll. But I love to play grooves, and I love trying to combine my more adventurous texture-based kind of things with metrics.
WCP: It's interesting to hear that you have this rock background and interest in textures, considering that last year you did an incredible chamber-classical-based album, Woodblock Prints. Do you have backgrounds in all of these types of music?
HE: Well, I think Woodblock Prints is definitely chamber music-inspired, but I don’t know that the music is so different in terms of the music and the writing, just in terms of the instrumental choices. My background in classical music is not deep at all. I played in concert band and stage band, winds ensemble in middle school and the beginning of high school, but I never was really serious about it. But as a composer, I’m increasingly inspired by it. I got into jazz by starting in fusion and going backward; by the same token, I was more inspired at first by 20th century music than by anything before the 20th century. But I have come to really find great inspiration in Renaissance counterpoint, and in Brahms and Ravel. Somehow I found my way to assimilate all these things.
WCP: Do the other members Canada Day play in those other contexts with you?
HE: There’s some overlap for all of us. My bassist, Garth Stevenson, I met him playing in some informal sessions in New York, and he played bass on Woodblock Prints, and that’s how I fell in love with his playing. I have a longer association with everybody else. The vibraphonist, Chris Dingman, and I started playing together in Los Angeles, when he was a student at the Monk Institute and I was living in L.A. about five years ago. We played together in Adam Rudolph’s band, Organic Orchestra.
Nate [Wooley, the trumpeter] and I started playing together when I moved to New York five years ago; I hope I’ll be playing with Nate for a very long time. We have a very nice relationship: I play in his quintet, he plays in Canada Day. He plays in another project of mine, a horns and drums group that’s had different names. The last record we did was called Guewel, an album based on music of traditional African cultures, in 2008. And Matt, I think I started playing with Matt about five years ago, also when I first moved to New York. He’s played with Canada Day the whole time, and also I’ve played in a couple of his things here and there.
WCP: Your wife, Sara Schoenbeck, is a classical bassoonist who’s worked with you on your projects before. How does that shape your approach?
HE: Sara’s got a super, super heavy background in classical music, and got into improvising toward the end of her undergraduate career at the conservatory; she ended up at CalArts and improvising became really central to her life. But she kept her classical and contemporary classical interests; in particular, she’s a champion of contemporary classical bassoon. Where most of us grew up listening to rock music, she grew up in the orchestra.
I think part of what attracted me to her from the beginning is what a badass musician she was. In fact, I know it. So we’ve been together about 10 years, and her musicianship is a constant source of inspiration. It spurred my interest in writing for a chamber music situation. A lot of music I’ve written over the years—I think my second record, Fight or Flight, from 2002, had some chamber music instrumentation along with some creative orchestra stuff. I did a record, The All Seeing Eye, with an octet, with bassoon, clarinet, and bass clarinet instead alto, tenor, and trumpet. Sara’s someone I’ve written for probably more than anybody. We play a lot together.
WCP: Would you ever organize with a single ensemble that can handle the instrumentation and arrangements of all of these contexts? The avant-garde stuff, long form and songs, plus chamber music, and rock, and African traditional?
HE: Yeah. I did something called Ahimsa Orchestra in 2005; I had done earlier incarnations of it in New York, L.A., and the Bay Area for a couple of years. A gig every year or so—it’s hard to get a lot of people together, of course. But I would like to reconvene a large ensemble at some point.
We are doing an octet version of Canada Day at the end of our tour. The last gig we do is in New York and it’s actually an octet featuring trombone, alto saxophone and tuba added to Canada Day. I guess I just can’t resist trying to reconfigure things.
WCP:Will we be hearing the new Canada Day material you’ve been working on in D.C.?
HE: Yes. This is always something that feels weird from a business standpoint: When you’re on a release tour, you’re supposed to get on the mike and say “OK! This next song is from our new record! It’s over there in the corner!” But in fact, we’re going to be playing a whole new book of tunes. Reason being, we’ve played that music for a year and a half; we got it to the point where it was ready to record, and we recorded it. We might play a couple off the record just because they’re great, and we should, and because this is a CD release tour, and the street date is April 12. So there’ll be a sprinkling for sure; I’m sure we’ll play some songs from the record, but mixed in with primarily a bunch of new stuff.
Photo by Peter Gannushkin.