Eisenstadt : The Next Wave
Artistic responsibility and historical context aren't concepts
that typically spring to mind when one thinks about creative improvised
music. After all, isn't the point of the music to stretch boundaries,
to continually push at what is already knownin other words,
to realize the new? Wasn't that what was gained during the 1950s
and 60s through the work of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane,
Sun Ra, and others: Freedom from historical contexts, freedom from
presumptions and expectations, freedom from the popular song and the
concomitant musicological trappings of explicit meters, strict tonality,
and the strict-structured relationship of leader and sideman?
Perhaps, or perhaps this is the simplistic story that is most easily
told. For when we really go back to those early recordings what is
most often striking is not the newfound freedoms exhibited by the
first wave of the jazz avant-garde, but how historically constructed
those freedoms were. After all, wasn't collective improvisation
the fundamental working model of the earliest forms of jazzthis,
of course, why it was a logical leap for Roswell Rudd to move from
trad to freeand hadn't, as Charles Mingus certainly argued,
Ellington done everything already?
Cecil Taylor and Max Roach (and let us not forget how "radical"
Roach was during the 60s) may have pushed toward new concepts of rhythm
and meter, but their work was not a-historical, as is too often argued.
Instead, it was entirely responsive to historical contingencies, created
with love (rather than derision) for the music that had influenced
them throughout their lives. "Free Jazz" was neither aberration
nor logical extension but simply one among many forms and genres that
developed to meet the needs of creative musicians, musicians who grew
up inspired by their historical forbearers and who would certainly
go on to influence an entire new generation of players.
If there were any freedoms gained, ultimately, they weren't in
the guise of "freedoms from" as much as they were in relationship
to "freedoms to". Freedoms to incorporate any variety of
influences, freedoms to explore other musical traditions, freedoms
to develop one's own unique language, one's own vision,
one's own voice. Folk music of all kinds, as well as the various
traditions of Africa, India, Europe, Japan, and the Middle East called,
and musicians engaged in a bountiful dialogue.
So it should actually be without surprise that the newest generation
of players (a generation whose entire lives have been defined by an
unprecedented availability to knowledge and information from around
the world) is mindful, is even responsive to artistic responsibility
and tradition. "If you have all of the freedom in the world, you are
responsible for practicing that freedom within tradition", remarks
Harris Eisenstadt, a young drummer now residing in LA, and his comment
is one of which anyone interested in where the music is heading must
(© Satinder Singh)
Eisenstadt is a remarkably prolific artist, whose own output is a
perfect example of someone who is both a consummate artist and scholar.
"People who are sincere and authentic, who are innovators and
individuals, all inspire and influence me." One look at the list
of links from his website confirms that his statement is neither conspicuous
eclecticism nor vacuous rhetoric: Amilcar Cabral, Malcolm X, Toru
Takemitsu, Edgar Varese, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Wadada Leo Smith,
Foday Musa Suso, and Richard Pryor all feed Eisenstadt's creativity.
Talking with him about music is a broad conversation, ranging from
his studies with Wadada Leo Smith to his sojourn to Gambia, from his
early love of Rock and Roll (read: John Bonham) to his complete and
total admiration for the power of Elvin Jones: "It goes beyond
jaw dropping... Elvin transcends music. It has something to do with
his sense of time and complete veracity... that fire, that force of
nature." It's a heady conversation, moving lightning quick
from one subject to another, with penetrating comments thrown out
as simple asides: "It's amazing that we speak of Europe
as a simple, cohesive whole."
It is this perspicacity that clearly shows in Eisenstadt's playing,
and one need not know that he is a student of the entire history of
trap drumming (from the Americans to Tony Oxley, Paul Lytton, and
"the great John Stevens") to know that his perspective is broad. Whether
he is playing a beat or implying a pulse, playing his typically small
kit or a "prepared" set, his understanding of the nature of rhythm
is refined. For a prime example, check out the 2004 recording Vista
with Sam Rivers and Adam Rudolph. It is a profound album, in a way
a chronicle of "the beat" in a wealth of incarnations. This multigenerational
recording is exactly the type of thing one would expect from Eisenstadt,
who isn't afraid to mix it up with musicians of such enduring caliber.
His ability to do so with the obvious authority he brought to the
session is evidence of his constant striving to place himself within
diverse playing situations and his command over his instrument. From
his acclaimed CIMP disc Jalolu ("a series of compositions influenced
by African horn and drum ensemble musics") to his compositions for
medium and large-size chamber orchestras, to the work he does in KOLA
(Kreative Orchestra of Los Angeles), to his gigs with dance ensembles
("I spent several years studying and performing West African and Javanese
dance"), to his work with experimental animation and theatre (he will
be providing musical accompaniment for a one-man Macbeth production
in November and December of 2004), Eisenstadt is always on the move.
His is a life, as Anthony Braxton would argue, "devoted to creative
It is a life, also, particularly devoted to drums. Greatly inspired
by unpitched percussion, Eisenstadt is also familiar with the complete
range of the percussive family, drawing "great inspiration from
mallet players". After only a cursory listen, it will be clear
to any listener that he has studied both the history of drumming as
well as the history of percussion in general. Another inspiration
is the guitar, an "inescapable influence", as Eisenstadt
states, for anyone growing up in the 1970s. For Eisenstadt, though,
the sound of the guitar has been morphed (no longer playing frontline),
as he typically uses it in his compositions for "textural explorations".
More recently, kora-inspired guitar lines have found their way into
his music, as has the influence of people including Babaa Maal and
Foday Musa Suso.
Again, this should not be surprising given the current age in which
we live. "The concept of place is now completely different with
the Internet. You want to learn about some Swiss drummer and all you
have to do is click and there it is." For Eisenstadt, though,
this ability to "virtually" learn does not replace the need
for travelhis demanding touring schedule is evidence enough
that he is no simple online explorer. Instead, his commitment to throwing
himself into situations throughout the world reminds one of the careers
of Don Cherry or Peter Kowald, musicians who made music through travel,
whose lives were defined by travel.
For Eisenstadt, who did a short European tour in the time span it
took to interview him and later write this piece, the contemporary
music scene is "clearly the result of a pile of travel".
It is the aggregation of cultures mixing, sometimes clashing, and
thereby perpetually defining music in continual evolution. This transnational
enterprise is not without dangers, though, and perhaps tradition is
more important now than ever before. But actually, isn't this
exactly what Cecil Taylor argued over forty years ago?
This is why musicians like Eisenstadt are not content with simply
hearing West African music on record. This is why people like Eisenstadt
head to Africa, not only to study the music but also the dance and
the culture. And this is why contemporary improvised music will forever
remain vital, as musicians continue to learn from their own traditions
as well as those from around the world. Travel will forever play a
role as musicians celebrate the "freedoms to" as much as
the "freedoms from". Listen and you will know: The future
of creative improvised music will be written by people like Harris