Harris Eisenstadt, Intellect and Emotion
Any encounter with drummer Harris Eisenstadt—whether in person or through his music—provides evidence that he is a “thinking man,” to borrow a phrase from trumpeter Nate Wooley.
The prolific Eisenstadt leads multiple bands, with Wooley a member of his most longstanding group, the quintet Canada Day. Wooley traded horn for pen to write liner notes for the eponymous first album by another of Eisenstadt’s groups, the September Trio, which features saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and pianist Angelica Sanchez. Wooley wrote: “He doesn’t produce unneeded complexity in his compositions or his playing to give us mental gymnastics to follow; he instead puts his incredible natural energy and intelligence into creating music that is thoughtful, unique, well-constructed, meaningful
and somehow simple sounding.”
There is indeed a balance of thought and feeling in Eisenstadt’s music, particularly with the September Trio. That first album features wonderfully
atmospheric, poetic ballads. Eskelin’s tenor has a husky lyricism, while Sanchez’s harmonic choices eschew cliché. Eisenstadt’s playing reveals a drummer
with a composer’s ear, for whom color is as vital as propulsion. The group’s second release, The Destructive Element (Clean Feed), ups the ante; the album is melody-rich and blue-hued but more volatile that its predecessor.
Seated outdoors at a bar in Ditmas Park, the charming Brooklyn neighborhood he calls home with his family, the 38-year-old Eisenstadt talked about his open style of composing for the September Trio: “Ellery plays the notes, but his distinctive sound and sense of time shape the music. For the new record, I encouraged Ellery to be as bluesy as he wanted to be and for Angie to be as gospel-y as she wanted. Both of them can deal with lyrical material but naturally subvert it, too, through timbre and by expanding forms. The idea is to meld lyricism with abstraction—it doesn’t have to be either/or.”
Eskelin, a veteran bandleader in his own right, was drawn to the ballad-like aspect of Eisenstadt’s writing for the trio, as well as the sense of space and freedom. “As a saxophonist, that setting is really conducive to going for a fuller tone—there is a lot of air around each instrument, and this becomes part of the fabric of the band’s sound,” Eskelin said. “Harris also plays with close attention to dynamics, which I appreciate greatly in a drummer.”
Canada Day—which these days includes Wooley, tenor saxophonist Matt Bauder, vibraphonist Chris Dingman and bassist Garth Stevenson—has released three albums as a quintet, plus one as a textured octet with alto sax, trombone and tuba. Canada Day Octet (482 Music) begins with a drum solo, although it’s a characteristically singing, sculptural one. Eisenstadt’s music for Canada Day is compositionally oriented, yet has room for personal inflections in the playing.
Regarding Canada Day, Wooley said, “What Harris has done brilliantly is to keep the same band together over some years, which isn’t as easy as it seems. And he combines a growing knowledge of each player’s preferences for how they like to improvise with a talent for finding good ways to push us into new areas, to force us to think in new ways. He knows how to hear someone’s voice in a new context.
That has a lot to do with why his music always sounds fresh and vibrant.”
Eisenstadt’s newest band is the chamber-jazz outfit Golden State, with bassist Mark Dresser, flutist Nicole Mitchell and bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck. The group’s debut, Golden State (Songlines), is Eisenstadt’s 15th album as a leader since 2001. He has various connections with each member, most closely
with Schoenbeck, who is his wife. Reflecting on the genesis of the band, Eisenstadt said, “The unusual instrumentation of flute, bassoon, bass and drums was intriguing—like, ‘What’s this going to sound like?’ I wanted to hear it. There is that post-Ellington thing to what I do in that I write for specific players,
striving to take advantage of what the musicians can do.”
Continually expanding his palette, Eisenstadt has studied West African drumming, recorded an album with saxophonist Sam Rivers and percussionist
Adam Rudolph (as the Vista trio) and composed a concerto for multiple drummers that will be performed with the Brooklyn Conservatory Community Orchestra for its premiere in November. As he pondered the challenges of making music as a career, Eisenstadt mentioned composer Arnold Schoenberg, the modernist icon who provided germinal inspiration for a couple of September Trio pieces. Schoenberg was a famous intellectual, but Eisenstadt cited another of the composer’s traits—tenacity—which is certainly a necessity for any questing artist.