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Harris Eisenstadt: Rhythm & Range

A drummer/bandleader composes from the bottom up

Harris Eisenstadt
Harris Eisenstadt

In the sweaty basement room at the Brooklyn bar Sycamore in August, Harris Eisenstadt sat behind his kit with his head cocked back, listening with a bemused grin on his face. Trumpeter Nate Wooley was telling, with bone-dry humor, the story behind one of his compositions. But after launching into the intricate piece, Eisenstadt’s expression seemed identical: listening, alert, mildly but pleasantly surprised by the sound.

That countenance is indicative of Eisenstadt’s style as both a drummer and a composer, roles that weigh on his work with equal importance. His music trades on the balance of invention and cohesion, finding vivid beauty in the harmonious commingling of distinctly spontaneous voices. It also springs directly from his identity as a drummer, not in show-offy percussive assaults but in the rhythmic base in which every other element of his music is rooted. “It’s not that I think ‘drumistically’ or ‘soloistically,'” Eisenstadt explains, “so much as the fact that I just think rhythmically first. Even writing harmony or melodies or thinking about textures or forms, it’s a central preoccupation.”

The chief outlet for 37-year-old Eisenstadt’s compositions is Canada Day, his quintet with Wooley, saxophonist Matt Bauder, bassist Garth Stevenson (replacing Eivind Opsvik) and vibraphonist Chris Dingman. The band first performed in 2007 on July 1, the national day of Eisenstadt’s native Canada. This year, Eisenstadt released the quintet’s third album as well as a new suite for an expanded octet version of the group.

“Harris’ tunes for Canada Day are so open and so structured at the same time that they’re not really the blowing vehicles that a lot of jazz tends to be,” Wooley says. “I find myself trying a lot of models of playing, encompassing free bop, hard bop, lyrical playing and sound playing, and generally feel like I get nowhere on his tunes. It’s only after a lot of the band playing them together that something seems to start working. It’s a rigorous process, like playing Cage. You grow when you play his music.”

Eisenstadt credits his development to a series of important mentors, starting with his father, an amateur drummer who played Dave Clark Five-style pop songs in the mid-’60s with a college band. “When I was at a single-digit age he was playing along in the basement to cassettes, and I just thought it was cool,” Eisenstadt recalls. He began to follow in his father’s footsteps but abandoned music for sports in high school. He arrived at Maine’s Colby College intending to play hockey and baseball, but quickly discovered he’d made a mistake. “I got there and thought, ‘Wow, these are the guys I’m going to spend four years with?’ At the same time I got back into playing drums in this rock band with some friends.”

Eisenstadt followed a backdoor, rock avenue into jazz. “In high school I wrote a report on the Tony Williams Lifetime because it was the most rock-like thing I could find,” Eisenstadt remembers, “but I didn’t understand what was going on. It took hearing [Williams] with Miles a few years later to realize that I wanted to do my version of this for the rest of my life.”

With that determination, Eisenstadt moved to New York in 1998 and spent a semester at the New School while studying with Barry Altschul and working at the Knitting Factory. On the clock backstage at a gig he met percussionist Adam Rudolph, who pointed him towards Wadada Leo Smith’s then-new program at CalArts. “Wadada is the central influence on my creative life,” Eisenstadt says. “He’s been super-inspiring as a composer, as an instrumentalist, as an improviser and as an advocate for himself.”

While in California, Eisenstadt also frequently visited Rudolph’s home studio in Ventura. “Harris understands that it takes a certain kind of studiousness to develop your artistry,” Rudolph says, “and it takes a certain kind of courage to pursue your vision of what you want to do as an artist. The tradition of this music is to project your inner voice through your music and your compositional approach, and I hear that in his music.”

Rudolph was also instrumental in encouraging Eisenstadt to visit West Africa, where he traveled in 2002 and 2007 to study with local drummers in Gambia and Senegal. “That was huge,” Eisenstadt says. “It changed the way I looked at the music, but it also changed the way I think about everything in my life in the West.” Though he released a pair of albums directly inspired by those trips, their influence on the majority of his playing has been subtle, more philosophical than overt. (One way in which he perpetuates that impact is by leading drum circles for corporate and community team-building events. Videos online show him demonstrating simple rhythmic patterns echoed by dozens of cubicle-dwellers dressed in pantsuits and button-down shirts, sitting slightly uncomfortably behind djembes.)

Since returning to New York in 2005, Eisenstadt has continued to pursue a variety of experiences. Alongside Canada Day, he also leads the September Trio with pianist Angelica Sanchez and tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin; that group’s second album is due next year. This fall he’s planning to teach for Smith at CalArts while assembling a new quartet with his wife, bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck; flutist Nicole Mitchell; and bassist Mark Dresser. He will also expand his symphonic writing with a Brooklyn Conservatory Orchestra-commissioned piece for orchestra and a dozen high school drummers.

“The handful of times I’ve had the chance to write music where I wasn’t playing drums have been great,” Eisenstadt says, “but I also would never not want to be behind the drums. I’m not sure I would be happy just doing one or the other; I see them both as part of who I am.”

Originally Published