Harris Eisenstadt: Recent Developments

Calling New York-based composer, percussionist, and bandleader Harris Eisenstadt an iconoclast might sound hyperbolic, but the body of work he's produced and the bands he's led certainly show him to be someone who's regularly challenged convention and upended it in thoughtful and strategic manner. Recent Developments, his twentieth release as a bandleader, not only expands on the quartet and quintet configurations of his five previous Songlines releases but does so arrestingly by featuring bassoon and banjo as voices within the nine-member outfit. But, as Brian Morton asserts in his excellent liner notes, the “present ensemble's instrumentation may seem unusual, even strange, but only as read on the back of a CD digipak. Once heard, it makes complete sense.” After all, there's no reason why bassoon can't be as legitimate a presence within an instrumental jazz-related context as any other instrument.

Morton also astutely notes, “Few modern leader-composers write quite so distinctively for the group, rather than simply setting down themes in front of a group and allowing the component idiolects to make what they will of them”; one might add that though the charts Eisenstadt gives his players are detailed, opportunities for individual expression aren't negated. Without question one of the key selling-points for Recent Developments lies in its distinctive timbral contrasts; simply hearing such instruments in a ‘chamber jazz' context alongside other more familiar sounds provides a great amount of listening pleasure. Along with bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck, banjo player Brandon Seabrook, and drummer Eisenstadt, the album features flutist Anna Webber, trumpeter Nate Wooley, trombonist Jeb Bishop, cellist Hank Roberts, bassist Eivind Opsvik, and Dan Peck on tuba.

Certainly the influences Eisenstadt drew upon for the project are diverse, with everything from Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities to Beni Ourain-styled rug weaving cited as contributing factors. The late writer's ideas about communities and the way they interact informed Eisenstadt's thinking about the nonet, while the Moroccan rugs captivated him with the textural beauty of their intricate designs. While Henry Threadgill, Dave Douglas, and John Zorn are mentioned as musical influences, there's another that could conceivably have been included, given how much the string of Gramavision releases Bobby Previte issued during the late-‘80s and early-‘90s prefigured Eisenstadt's own approach. On a representative release such as Claude's Late Morning, for instance, the drummer-composer assembled a nonet of his own that included accordion player Guy Klucevsek, harpist Carol Emmanuel, and pedal steel guitarist Josh Dubin. Threadgill, too, has long been known for unusual group formations, among them his twin tuba-powered Very Very Circus.

Presented as six ensemble pieces and eight transitional sections, Eisenstadt's fourteen-part suite is logically structured and sequenced; bolstering its degree of connectedness, material from the ensemble performances is explored by various sub-ensembles in the other parts. If there's a downside to the approach, it's that an impression of choppiness accrues when many short parts appear; momentum is arrested by the stop-start presentation, and when that occurs an album featuring seven or eight ensemble-only tracks begins to seem like a potentially more satisfying proposition. While the sub-ensemble arrangements don't lack for appeal—the pairing of flute and bassoon in the fleeting “Introduction,” for instance, is effective—it's the ensemble performances that have the greater impact; not only do their longer running times allow for more exploration and interaction, they enable the contrasting timbres of all nine players to be sampled within a single setting. During “Part 2,” for instance, a theme is consecutively voiced by the various members against the rhythm section's swing to ear-catching effect, and “Part 4” and “Part 6” similarly satisfy in respectively featuring Webber soloing against a tuba-and-drums vamp and Roberts backed by calypso-flavoured swing. Ultimately, whatever reservations one might have about the recording, they don't argue against Eisenstadt's approach in general. Such an innovative conceptualist and forward-thinking sensibility should always be encouraged, and to that end Songlines also merits praise for being a consistently supportive promoter of his work.

May 2017