Jan 3 2013
Drummer Harris Eisenstadt confounds me.
He consistently puts out challenging recordings. He toys with compositions, delves into the process of creating them… of giving them meaning and function, then deciphering the implications of that meaning and function, and then re-working the damn things. Read over his site, check out interviews he’s given… he’s a tinkerer. If he were a watchmaker, Eisenstadt would find a way to change the flow of time. He does it now with his drums and his compositions.
I’ve always found it a shame that I can’t enjoy his music more than I do.
Canada Day III is, arguably and as far as these thing go, an accessible recording. And yet here I am struggling to take it all in.
In truth, this isn’t a unique experience for me. It’s happened before. Most notably, in regards to the music of Ornette Coleman… another musician who found himself tinkering with the way of things. I dove right into Coleman’s Atlantic Records releases, pretty much one right after the other. I never made a hell of a lot of sense of them, but I just kept listening with the hope that eventually they would sink in. That technique didn’t give me the results I wanted. Coleman remained an enigma for a long time. And then I heard his collaboration with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, as part of the soundtrack to the movie adaptation of William S. Burrough’s “Naked Lunch.” Hearing Coleman’s squirrely harmolodic style of play interact with the distant warmth of the stately LPO, everything fell into place. I was able to revisit all of those old Coleman Atlantic recordings, and though their ferocity was a distant cry from the contained fire of the Naked Lunch soundtrack, the connection between me and the music was instantaneous. I’d found my way in, so to speak, and now all of Coleman’s music made sense to me.
I guess I’m hoping that the same thing happens with me and Eisenstadt’s music one day. I think he’s one of the most important composers on the scene… forward-thinking, inventive, and expressive. I love reading about him talk about music. It reminds me of many of my own thoughts about the creative process. His music does, too. I just don’t enjoy listening to it that much, though. It eludes me.
I considered doing an overview of his recordings for this column, but decided against it. I’m going to simply talk about his current release Canada Day III. It won’t make my Best of 2012 lists. On the other hand, it may rank in top ten lists of other music writers. Don’t dismiss their opinions on this album. They might very well be right. One day, years from now, when Eisenstadt’s music stops shadowboxing with my ears, I might sit up with embarrassment that I never included his music in my Best Of columns. That’s very likely, actually. But this is how music is sometimes. Gotta roll with it.
Now, let’s briefly talk about that music…
Your album personnel: Harris Eisenstadt (drums), Garth Stevenson (bass), Chris Dingman (vibraphone), Nate Wooley (trumpet), and Matt Bauder (tenor sax).
Y’know, before I get into the album, I had to laugh as I typed the album personnel out just above. I began this article with the word ‘confounding,’ and it occurs to me that this album’s personnel are like a murderer’s row of challenging artists. That makes sense, in a way.
Album opens with “Slow and Steady.” It exemplifies much of what to expect on the remainder of the recording. Sudden fluctuations in rhythm, melodies that gradually become formless and drift away, excursions into the grey areas that act as the border between the ominous and the enchanting, and series upon series of notes as earthy as a golem yet as shifty as a doppelganger. On “Slow and Steady,” many of these album characteristics are somewhat muffled, and the tune is a dream of serenity during a night of fitful sleep.
But I don’t want to give the impression that this all just a quixotic swarm of avant-garde ferocity. Second track “Settled” has some pleasant post-bop swing to it. Wooley starts things out on trumpet, and Bauder jumps in on sax for a section of contemplative lyricism. I enjoy how the song breaks down. It’s a slurred rendition of the melody, a trait which gives it a likable quality… friendly, even.
Okay, that said, but the third track “A Whole New Amount of Interactivity” is kind of a quixotic swarm of avant-garde ferocity. It’s the kind of track that typically frustrates my attempts to connect with the music. I think I have difficulty adapting to the shifts in tempo, the rhythmic pinball that recalibrates my own sense of timing. Seventh track “Shuttle Off this Mortal Coil” messes me in a similar way, though that’s mitigated by the inclusion of some waltz motion (which my internal clock is finely attuned to), and a reference, maybe just the implication of a reference, to Monk’s “Epistrophy.”
Fifth track “Song For Sara for Sara Schoenbeck” comes damn close to roping me in. Bauder’s sing-song intro, with a fluttering touch, and set atop the barely perceptible rhythmic palette of Eisenstadt, Stevenson, and Dingman, it makes for a thrilling moment. Then Wooley joins on trumpet for another statement of melody, before the two begin weaving progressions together that sound effortless and without elaboration. When Dingman’s vibes transition from a rhythmic to a melodic function, it adds texture that just makes sense. Stevenson also begins to sing on bass a bit, and Eisenstadt sets down an exuberant groove. After a Dingman solo, sax and trumpet rejoin for a section that’s practically celebratory. That moment when they all come together is a great thing, and the way they play off into the sunset makes for a satisfying end to the song.
Track six “Nosey Parker” has more of that staccato hop, but gets washed away with the purifying flame of Wooley’s trumpet. A kinetic sax section by Bauder returns to the hop. It’s that kind of thing that I don’t much care for while simultaneously fascinated by.
Another track I liked was album-closer “King of the Kutiriba for Mamady Danfa,” a noir-ish mystery soundtrack. Bass strolls down an alley lit by vibes moonlight, and pursued by muted trumpet. Drums are the soft patter of footfalls in the shadows, hidden but comforting. Everybody is cool, everything is cool, just watch your back. It’s an odd way to end the album with a tune that’s incongruous to everything that came before, but it does echo the shimmering effervescence of the album’s opening statement, so there is a tie-in. And besides, a nifty tune is a nifty tune, regardless of how well it plays with other album songs.
And that’s how it ends.
Released on the Songlines Recordings label.
Jazz from NYC.
Download a free album track at the label site, courtesy of the artist and label.