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Harris 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 known—in 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 jazz—this, of course, why it was a logical leap for Roswell Rudd to move from trad to free—and 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.

Harris Eisenstadt
(© Satinder Singh)

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 take note.

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 music".

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 travel—his 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 Eisenstadt.