Harris Eisenstadt – Canada Day II ( Songlines)
Nate Wooley Quintet – (Put Your) Hands Together (CF218)
According to Webster’s Dictionary, a compromise is either “something intermediate between or blending qualities of two different things,” or “a concession to something derogatory or prejudicial.” Inspired by their respective leader’s evolving familial identities, Canada Day II and (Put Your) Hands Together are two pertinent examples of the first definition. The former is the follow-up to the eponymous Clean Feed debut of Harris Eisenstadt’s Canada Day, the later is the premier of Nate Wooley’s new quintet, which bears a remarkable resemblance to Eisenstadt’s album in instrumentation, personnel and approach. The creation of both records is directly informed by family; Eisenstadt’s is influenced by the birth of his first child, Wooley’s is a love letter of sorts to his parents and relatives. Tempering avant-garde inclinations with accessible characteristics, they frame esoteric interests in subtly traditional settings, accentuating their singular talents in the process.
Canada Day has been Eisenstadt’s primary vehicle for integrating his divergent interests since 2007, often yielding a rich fusion of inside and outside concepts that remain palatable to mainstream sensibilities. A masterful tunesmith with a keen ear for intriguing compositional gambits, Eisenstadt infuses his writing for the group with a strong melodic undercurrent, relying on his bandmates to expand beyond notated material into vanguard territory, balancing conventional song-craft with unfettered abstraction.
The birth of Eisenstadt’s son, Owen, exerted considerable sway over the creative arc that informs Canada Day II, which offers an intriguing mix of emotionally direct tunes written after his son’s birth and more intricate fare that was composed beforehand. In Eisenstadt’s own words: “My wife had just given birth and I was kind of floating along in a tired and sentimental way. I found myself writing simple songs … in stark contrast to the way I’d formulated [pieces] which were written before Owen was born.”
The album’s easygoing demeanor is implicit from the start; Eisenstadt introduces the stirring opener, “Cobble Hook,” with a carefree unaccompanied drum solo that perfectly complements the tune’s sunny melody. Eivind Opsvik’s pulsating bass lines inspire vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s effervescent cascades, which in turn fuel Matt Bauder’s probing tenor saxophone musings – the net effect is infectiously uplifting. The nursery rhyme inspired melody of “Song For Owen” elicits subdued statements from Bauder, Wooley and Dingman, who ruminate on the nostalgic theme with sumptuous lyricism.
The second half of the set is dominated by the more complex “To” based pieces (“To Eh,” “To Be,” and “To See/Tootie”) which were composed before Owen’s birth, revealing Eisenstadt’s facility for writing complex, yet accessible suites. Each composition modulates through an episodic series of changes in color, dynamics and mood, such as “To See/Tootie,” which features one of Nate Wooley’s most ear-opening trumpet excursions, and “To Seventeen,” which ebbs with a laconic reggae beat, inspiring a bluesy lament from Wooley, whose bristling contributions are among the record’s high points.
“Judo with Tokyo Joe (for John Zorn)” ends the album on a moody, cinematic note, the title referring to an old Humphrey Bogart film Eisenstadt watched with Zorn, who encouraged the young drummer to get back into composing despite his exhaustion as a new parent. In spite of the rather unremarkable title, Canada Day II contains some rather remarkable music, making it a fine follow-up to the quintet’s debut, and proving that negotiating the balance between family and art can sometimes have its advantages.
Making a radical departure from the austere minimalism of the lowercase improv scene he has long been associated with, Wooley’s (Put Your) Hands Together is the most accessible and traditional release of his career to date. This new ensemble spins a subtle variation on Wooley’s former quartet with vibraphonist Matt Moran, bassist Reuben Radding and late drummer Take Toriyama, which was disbanded after Toriyama’s untimely passing. Mirroring Eisenstadt’s Canada Day in instrumentation and personnel, Wooley’s quintet features Moran as the only holdover from his old quartet, with Opsvik and Eisenstadt joined by bass clarinetist Josh Sinton.
A mostly spare and relaxed affair, (Put Your) Hands Together is inspired in part by Wooley’s formative experiences playing in big bands alongside his father, with each piece dedicated to one of the important women in his life. In a March 2011 interview with fellow trumpeter Douglas Detrick, published by FONT (Festival of New Trumpet Music), Wooley describes the album’s origin: “It’s mostly a thank you to the women that raised me, my mom, my wife, my grandmother and all of her sisters … It’s also a nod and a thank you to my dad who has always wanted me to just make a record where I am playing notes in time with a rhythm section … Those parts are for him and for my mom who also would like to hear a record that doesn’t sound like ‘breaking glass’ as she puts it.” Conceding to their wishes, Wooley integrates foundational jazz elements (standard chord changes, recognizable time signatures, etc.) into his oblique themes, yielding a beautiful neo-traditionalist hybrid subtly reminiscent of the adventurous 1960s Blue Note records of Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill and Bobby Hutcherson.
Adapting a traditional framework as the foundation for his wayfaring explorations, Wooley’s confident opening statement on the infectious title track is emblematic of his unorthodox technique, which incorporates everything from the under-pressured pedal tones of Bill Dixon to the coruscating dissonances and breathy microtonality popularized by European practitioners like Axel Dörner and Franz Hautzinger. Slowly building through a series of thematic variations, he gradually increases the velocity and frequency of his attack, amplifying the textural density of his lines without drifting into bombastic histrionics or overpowering the underlying structure of the tune. Possessing a soulful timbre far earthier than most of his peers, at his most extreme, as on “Cecilia,” he elicits coruscating flurries of breathy ululations and hoarse cries that exceed the limits of prescribed tonality. Yet his range is extremely broad; his sublime ruminations on “Hazel” and his heartfelt dialogue with Sinton on a folksy duo version of “Shanda Lea” – an Appalachian-tinged theme that appears in triplicate across the album – are heartbreaking in their intimate emotional candor.
Wooley’s bandmates bring a similar sensibility to the leader’s unassuming material, carefully extrapolating his catchy angular melodies with poetic restraint. Their congenial interplay on the contrapuntal “Elsa” (loosely based on “Lazy Bird”) and driving “Cecelia” (borrowing changes from “Confirmation”) boost the energy level of the session, with “Ethyl” employing a particularly imaginative use of contrary motion, as Sinton’s caterwauling bass clarinet is offset by the intermittent punctuations of a revolving minimalist motif.
Though (Put Your) Hands Together finds Wooley occasionally tempering his uncompromising technique to play actual changes in straight time, there is no sense of concession in this music; his efforts in this context are as sincere and compelling as his more abstract efforts. This compromise between extreme expressionism and a more conventional approach highlights his unique sensibility, presenting his singular talents in a new light, one which resounds with endless potential.