Harris Eisenstadt and Canada Day: Fitting in, standing out

In less than two weeks, Harris Eisenstadt and Canada Day will prove that their identifiable sound, their bridging of jazz and rock, and their improvisational and experimental prowess fit right into what RVAJazzfest strives to accomplish.

Drummer Harris Eisenstadt’s Canada Day will be headlining next Saturday’s third annual RVAJazzfest. We’re extremely excited to host the New York-based quintet, who will be touring for seven nights in support of their new album, Canada Day II. The band’s identifiable sound, their bridging of jazz and rock, and their improvisational and experimental prowess fit right into what RVAJazzfest strives to accomplish.

RVAJazz presents RVAJazzfest 2011
Saturday, April 9, 2011, 9pm.
Purchase tickets online

RVAJazz: This group sounds incredibly cohesive, like you’re all on the same page yet everyone’s contributing their own personalities. This record followed over a year of gigging on the material, so as you’ve said by the time you record, it’s about the musicians internalizing the form and music and getting off the paper. So how would you describe the beginning of that process, having new music to perform before internalizing it?

Harris Eisenstadt: It’s actually kind of like the music we’ll be playing on the tour, except by the time we get to you guys it should be together. We have a whole new book. It’s tricky at the beginning because it’s not necessarily that the music is so hard, but people are busy and it’s difficult to find ample time to rehearse in New York. Everyone is pulled in a bunch of different directions. We don’t have the luxury in this city to get together for a weekly rehearsal or having a weekly gig for a creative music project, or any of these various ways that you need to spend time with this stuff to get it together. You can read it down, that’s one thing. But if you’re wondering where we’re going next and you’re improvising, then that’s also in your head as well as just being able to play. Getting to that point of knowing where things are headed frees everybody up. The soloist, the accompaniment, everyone. As a result when you’re in that on-the-page off-the-page in between feeling, it just makes for a kind of on the job learning. It’s exciting, but it’s also a little fraught with a learning curve. It gets better each time.

RVAJazz: With that learning curve, can you pinpoint a moment, at least for yourself, when you sense that the other musicians have internalized the material, or is it completely gradual?

HE: That’s a good point. Things click in different ways for different people, and it’s kind of like an “all of the above” answer. I can think of maybe one particular moment that illustrates that. There’s one piece on the record called “To See/Tootie” and it used to be two tunes. We were playing in Toronto a couple falls ago on what was basically a CD release for the first record. We were doing all new tunes and trying to get a new book going. At some point, the bass player started playing “Tootie” at the end of “To See” instead of pausing and applause applause. No one talked about it, it just happened. He just started playing it in a very organic way, and it made perfect sense. “Tootie” didn’t really feel like its own piece and we didn’t know if we would bag it. And all of a sudden it became a kind of coda to “To See” and then it’s been that ever since. Sometimes these things just kind of find their own solution on the band stand. It’s also not just me deciding it. Yes, it’s one person’s band, but these are all fantastic musicians, they all have lots to say and lots of input. That idea in particular worked.

photo by Reuben Radding

RVAJazz: How about this new material? How does it compare to Canada Day II and the first album?

HE: It remains to be seen! In the case of the two previous books and what seems to be happening with the third, it’s like I write a bunch of music over the course of half a year and the tunes add up. Some pieces end up being parts of suites made up of two or three pieces, and there are some other shorter ones. Regardless, I think of music for this band as songs. That’s sort of adventurous, but accessible music at the same time. There’s usually grooves and bass lines and melodies. Sometimes things are more intricate than others; sometimes they’re quite simple. I think particularly with the second album, we just had a kid and I was exhausted. Half the record was written after he was born, these songs I wrote in my head and went and found some harmonies for. Quite simple pieces. Most of the music for this third record are actually pieces that came out of me writing a piece for American Composers Orchestra all year. It was my first symphonic piece and quite a different endeavor, but you end up leaving a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor. A lot of these pieces are built out of sketches for orchestra pieces. Not saying it’s going to be a classical music gig, because it won’t be, but that’s exactly where a lot of the material was generated from.

RVAJazz: How do you approach the balance between composed music and free playing in your compositions?

HE: I think it’s the context thing again. For this group there’s not a ton of free playing. Mostly improvising with some kind of structure going on one way or another. Having said that, because a big part of my personal history as a musician has to do with free improvisation as well as composition, it’s not something that I ever want to abandon completely even in this group, the least free improvising context of anything I do. There are moments, cadenza moments, and other spaces for free improvising in the context of each piece one way or another. There are episodes of it. Also I think it comes through in the rehearsal process when we’re putting it together. Again, “To See” comes to mind: it’s a piece that started out as something and then some kind of free element was added to it. It hits right off with the band doing something while Nate [Wooley], the trumpet player, does this sort of squall in juxtaposition to the written material. It wasn’t scored like that originally, that [squalls] kind of thing he’s doing. I just realized that maybe it felt a little too locked down, and Nate wanted to do free improvising against it. I didn’t say to him, “Why don’t you do this cool extended technique that you do so well?” because of course there are ten million of them that he does that are impossible anyway. But basically I said, “Why don’t you come up with something cool to juxtapose against what all of us are doing,” and then took it further and asked him to mess with the timbre and articulation of his entrance. Just to try to free up some space within the structure so things don’t feel too locked down even though the form’s going by.

RVAJazz: You received a Masters of Fine Arts in African American Improvisational Music and also studied in The Gambia and Senegal. First of all, can you describe what your studies covered?

HE: That title [of that program] is a title specific to the person whose program it is — Wadada Leo Smith — at CalArts. There was an entirely separate “capital J” Jazz program there, and then there’s Leo who’s carved out his own corner of academic territory, and this is what he called it. I got there with my friend Adam Rudolph, the percussionist and composer and long time friend. I was working for the Knitting Factory stage managing for a jazz festival in New York in 1998 [when] Adam told me about Leo’s program, which was new at the time. Leo’s program was very inclusive, actually: you took composition lessons with him, which were very hands on, but also life lesson-type hangs; and then you also take his ensemble classes, and you’re sort of free to focus on other areas as long as it complements what you’re doing. There’s also a critical studies element to his program that was pretty interesting. He required his MFA students to write a significant scholarly paper that allowed me the chance to really dig deep into the West African music program at CalArts, which isn’t technically part of his program but is obviously very much related and something he encouraged.

photo by Peter Gannushkin / downtownmusic.net

RVAJazz: And those studies led to studying abroad in Africa?

HE: The studying abroad stuff that I did I did because as completely inpsirational and life changing as studying Ghanaian music at CalArts was, it was still just a classroom experience in California. Even though these master teachers from Ghana are there, I felt like I really needed to experience the music within its own culture. I didn’t end up going to Ghana. I ended up going to The Gambia and Senegal, again with the help of Adam Rudolph who put me in touch with a kora player named Foday Musa Suso, who’s worked with Philip Glass, Kronos, Taj Mahal, Paul Simon. He and Adam had a band called The Mandigo Gringo Society. So I stayed with Suso and he organized teachers for me in Gambia. The second time I went on a “meet the composer” grant to do film scoring workshops with filmmakers. It was a way for me to get there to study traditional Senegalese drumming. I’ve spent every minute of my life ever since hoping I can get back to West Africa somehow and wondering how that could be.

RVAJazz: Especially for a drummer, that’s a dream come true.

HE: Yeah. To see music as a part of daily life cycle events. Yes, there is performance and it’s really interesting to see the difference between traditional music and popular music. There are clubs of course, and bands with electric guitars and the whole thing. But to see the ways popular and traditional music co-exist there, the functions that traditional music had, like weddings and manhood training, womanhood training, music for working in the fields and to support wrestlers, the way that popular music is encroaching on these traditional musics. Kids…kind of take the origins of their own culture for granted, actually. It’s pretty fascinating and kind of a bit dangerous; some of these traditional musics are endangered species in a certain way. And yes, there’s official government sponsorship of traditional events here and there for sure, but there should be more.

RVAJazz: That’s just like in America. Jazz and folk music are totally endangered.

HE: Absolutely right. Just like here, in its own terrible irony.

RVAJazz: Your album The Soul and Gone in 2005 had you playing with musicians who are major players in the Chicago scene. You live in New York, you’re from Canada, you studied in California. How do you compare the different scenes that you’ve encountered?

HE: Yeah, man, they’re all different things. For starters, the Toronto scene is not a scene I was really ever part of. I moved away to go to college, so I can’t speak to that one as personally. Although I will say that it seems like when I’ve gone back to play there in the last couple of years, there’s an increasingly vibrant and left-of-center creative music community there. California is hard to pinpoint because the Bay Area and L.A. are different centers, but I guess I’ll speak to L.A. since I lived there. L.A. has a small, very dedicated, and very fantastic creative music scene, but it’s basically off the radar of the city at large, which is a real shame. My wife, Sara, who’s a great basoonist and who lived there for a long time, says it’s not always true but it’s mostly true. There’s a handful of things going on every week. It’s a very great scene but it’s small and not given the due that it needs, for the most part. [Sara speaks from the background] She wants me not to undersell the L.A. scene. There’s just less people doing it there. It’s not like in New York where there are 10,000 fascinating people doing things and it’s hard to get noticed. It’s true that it’s a small community so you can make a splash. It’s kind of a big fish, small pond thing. The music community in L.A. is massive, it’s just mostly focused on the film industry and major label rock music.

Chicago is a fascinating place because it’s such a supportive scene. Everyone goes out to hear each other. It’s just too cold in the winter [laughs]. New York is fantastic, it’s inspiring but it also beats you down. There are so many people doing interesting stuff here that I would challenge anybody to do a comprehensive accounting of creative music in New York today, or at any point. We live in a neighborhood with a lot of musicians. There’s a friend who’s a new music clarinetist/creative improviser guy, and if someone says to him, “Oh, you must know this other fantastic new music clarinetist/improviser,” the guy is like, “No, I’ve never heard of him.” And they probably live a mile away from each other. They both grew up here; it’s not like one just got here. Just because there are so many circles of musicians and so much going on, it’s just too much for any one person to keep track of. I find it inspiring. I like being just a fish in a huge pond. It’s nice to get some notice and all that. I’d rather not be a little tadpole that gets eaten every morning by a shark. But I think anyone who wants to be the biggest fish in New York better not have anything else to do in their life except for hustle their career.

Sara Schoenbeck: And that would never happen. The scene is constantly in motion.

HE: Yeah, it’s constantly in flux and people are always coming and going all the time. I find that inspiring.

photo by Scott Friedlander

RVAJazz: So you really thrive in an environment as daunting as New York City.

HE: It can be frustrating at times. I think everybody goes through ups and downs where you’re not getting called enough or you’re not getting enough opportunities as a leader, but then you just have to go out and find them. It’s a little bit of a vanquished place in a certain way. You know, besides the New York Times, Time Out New York is one of the biggest magazines as far as jazz listings. I remember after I put out my chamber jazz record last year Woodblock Prints, I had a Time Out pick of the night with a big picture and 15 people came. That’s just another night in New York. Sometimes there are big crowds, sometimes (often) there are little crowds. There’s just this fusion of stuff going on, so it’s understandable that an audience is diffused as well. There are gigs in Brooklyn, gigs in Manhattan, gigs in Queens, whatever. If the audience is spread across ten events, and it’s already as we know not pop music, then that’s the challenge that goes with it.

RVAJazz: That must be tough as a resident of New York. I would feel an enormous responsibility to see live music every night.

HE: Well, you’ve got to get past that one quickly. Or not. There are people who go out every night. It’s amazing, I don’t know how they have the energy. I spent a semester at the New School in 1997 as a visiting student. I found living in New York at the time — I was 21 or 22 — totally enthralling. I lived in Greenwich Village and went to hear music every night. Jeff “Tain” Watts was the house drummer at Zinc on Monday nights, and if he wasn’t playing, Al Foster was subbing, or whatever. It was one of these, “Yeah, New York is awesome” kind of things. As a 21-year-old drummer, it really solidified that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. But nobody can hear music every night forever. There’s a few people who try and it’s incredible [laughs].

The greatest thing in my life happened when we had a kid almost two years ago. I sadly have barely gone out to hear live music in the last two years. The financial realities of living here, and you’re running around all day trying to make a living teaching or playing random gigs or doing whatever you do and you have gigs at night. Once a while you go hear your friends but of course once in a while you collapse on the couch. The thing about Chicago in terms of going out every night is there’s maybe two things some nights and one thing every night. It is a much smaller scene. The music is fantastic. That’s also true of L.A. and Toronto and any place with a scene. The Bay Area, certainly, Vancouver. There are great musicians everywhere, in Portland, Oregon; New Mexico; Boston. There are great musicians all over Europe. This old school thing of if you’re from New York you’re better than everyone else hasn’t applied in a really long time and anyone who tries to ride that, I think, is being disingenuous. At the same time, I don’t think anyone can say there are more musicians anywhere but here. The quantity thing is staggering.

RVAJazz: Have you ever been to Richmond?

HE: I never have! I’m really looking forward to it.

RVAJazz presents RVAJazzfest 2011
Saturday, April 9, 2011, 9pm, doors at 8pm
Harris Eisenstadt and Canada Day, Old New Things, Scott Clark 4-tet
The Camel, 1621 W. Broad St., Richmond, VA 23220. 804-353-4901
$15 advance, $20 door, $12 students
All ages
Purchase tickets online or in person at The Camel any day 5pm or later

photo by Peter Gannushkin / downtownmusic.net

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Dean Christesen

1 comment on Harris Eisenstadt and Canada Day: Fitting in, standing out

  1. Great interview. Looking forward to the festival.

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