While it's hard to find the right word to describe the music of percussionist Harris Eisenstadt '98, it's even harder to find a wrong one. Plain old "jazz" doesn't quite do this music justice because, really, this is something new.
The opening of his Ahimsa Orchestra album is so full of animated motifs and crashing percussion that it more closely resembles the soundtrack to an old episode of Tom and Jerry than it does anything you might associate with a jazz ensemble.
Likewise, Eisenstadt recently performed at The New Languages Festival in New York in a jazz group called Attack/Adorn/Decay. Its name summed up its appearance and sound.
Consisting of 11 players, on alto and tenor sax, two cellos, a trumpet, trombone, piano, upright basses, and percussion, the group spilled off the small red-lit stage into the crowd. When bandleader Nate Wooley picked up his trumpet the music began, not in unison, but in sporadic outbursts from each instrument. Each musician seemed to be playing at random, yet clearly each knew his own turn as there was little overlapping or clashing. Eisenstadt, tucked into the back left corner of the stage, kept his eyes on his fellow musicians, reading them as if they were the music. He hit a cymbal here, slammed on the snare there, or quickly stopped in time for a flurry of trombone notes to break through.
As chaotic as it may sound—about two thirds of the music was improvised—Eisenstadt explains that it came naturally. "It was mostly improvised, yeah, but so is any conversation you have. That was kind of a conversation between musicians," Eisenstadt said afterward.
Eisenstadt, an accomplished percussionist, has always improvised. Realizing Waterville was not a thriving jazz scene back in his college days, he fled "abroad" to New York City as a junior in order to learn jazz through osmosis—and through courses at The New School. "I went to New York and went to hear as much music as possible," he said.
Not that he limited himself exclusively to domestic jazz clubs for his education. "I studied world music and translated literature and loved that they had a function in society, not just as art," he said.
Eisenstadt took these two themes to the recording studio in 2006, when he laid down his own translation of Wayne Shorter's 1965 album The All Seeing Eye. Interestingly, Eisenstadt chose not to include Shorter's signature instrument, the saxophone, on the recording. "I [had] been inspired by that music for years and wanted to pay tribute by re-imagining it with new forms and different instrumentation," he said.
Indeed one of Eisenstadt's primary concerns is making music that is vital, moving forward instead of rehashing. "I want my compositions to be visceral and smart, an alternative jazz where all kinds of music go into it," he said. Sounds about right for a jazz musician who is as likely to cite architecture, a walk through his neighborhood, or Texas folkster Townes Van Zandt as influences as he is Blue Note or "Autumn Leaves."
Unfortunately, finding inspiration is much easier than finding financial security in the world of jazz music. Sitting outside at a corner bar in Jersey City, New Jersey, where he was living (he has since moved to Brooklyn), Eisenstadt sat with a pile of CDs and a book and contemplated his living.
"It ain't pretty. Well, it is but it isn't," he said.
On one hand, music has been his ticket around the world and an invitation to meet many of his idols. He shared various studios and venues across the country with the likes of rock icon Les Claypool and jazz legends Sam Rivers, Leo Smith, and Yusef Lateef, and he toured Europe, the U.K., and Australia playing with a one-man show of Macbeth. He just wrapped up a trip to Senegal, where he taught film scoring and studied traditional drumming.
On the other hand, the demands of professional musicianship keep him living a nomadic lifestyle, wandering from band to band. "I get to meet a lot of great people, but it's impossible to develop a band sound if you are always changing groups," he said. One night he may be playing a small club with a new jazz quintet. The next he might be holding down the beat for a rock group or teaching lessons to novice drummers.
With such a constantly changing array of gigs and musical pursuits, Eisenstadt can be hard to pin down as one thing or another. He admits to being a jazz musician—easy enough—but to describe his music? You'd have to improvise.
—Brendan Sullivan '06