Monday, March 12, 2012

Shit Camera Exposé: Harris Eisenstadt (National Arts Centre)

I stepped out into Ottawa’s dusk and sighed. However many kilometers I’d traveled that day from the mild Niagara region was but a speck of Canadian geography; still the dotted path I made from sunny vineyards to near-arctic tundra felt like a journey through Canada, each town a fertile shade different from the last.

Those six hours in the car likely weren’t as prolific as Harris Eisenstadt’s catalog, which for the past decade has spanned an internationalist’s tastes while dabbling nostalgically of late in Canada, where the Brooklyn-based artist spent his younger years. After collaborating on thirty-some-odd recordings as a session drummer or member of September Trio and Convergence Quartet, Eisenstadt’s recent work has found him operating as a bandleader, touring on the weight of his own compositions. Impressive though that feat is, Eisenstadt took to the Fourth Stage of the NAC on this chilly Monday evening and introduced himself by way of the Canada Day quintet. Now at first it seemed like merely a gracious move to bury his reputation in the collaborative spirit of his colleagues; I mean the ticket explicitly bears his birth name, not “Canada Day”, as do the recordings released by this quintet. But as soon as “Slow and Steady” takes shape, a vibraphone and cymbal-touched ambient piece topped over by pale horns and a tensely ambling bass, I begin to understand Eisenstadt’s democratic leanings.

No differently than how Art Blakey encouraged his sidemen to step up and evolve while performing in his troupe, Eisenstadt’s Canada Day approached each song as a shared experience full of instrumental face-offs and solos. Following that icicle-cool opening track – one of many new tracks, Eisenstadt promised – the band broke into livelier improvisations. “The Ombudsman I”, which began in oscillating vibraphone patterns that resonated increasingly like electronic sine waves, swelled into a dynamic sprawl of scathing trumpet solos and a percussive prowess I’d never personally witnessed. Alert to every burgeoning note, Eisenstadt proved an able navigator throughout, introducing well-timed lulls amid the cacophony of horns and in spastic, concise drum solos, reinstating the tune with fresh purpose.

Thrilling though it was to hear the band flirt so diligently with discord, Canada Day’s performance should be credited more to organization than to off-the-cuff improvisation. Besides the sheet music that positioned itself within eyesight of each musician, there was a notable regimen that enabled each track to thrive: Eisenstadt and bassist Garth Stevenson constantly communicated the quintet’s sense of momentum, Nate Wooley and Matt Bauder (on trumpet and tenor sax, respectively) carried melody and disharmony at the forefront while Chris Dingman permeated the gaps between the aforementioned instruments with webs of dreamy vibraphone. That subsequent lack of negative space might’ve felt overwhelming to the average listener if not for Eisenstadt’s transitional impetus, which treated each cluster of improvisation as another compositional link in the chain.

As surely as they’d stretch off in different directions before reassembling into tight song-craft, Canada Day’s overall pacing made light of its hour-and-a-half runtime. In one breath, dual horns would be punctuating funky grooves (“Nosey Parker”) and Dingman would illustrate how the vibraphone can offer a full body workout (on the ever-changing new song “Interactivity”). Minutes later, Canada Day would be settling into the romantic bass and cascading horns of a deft and surprisingly conservative ode to Eisenstadt’s wife (“Like It Was But a Bit Different”). It was a well-paced performance in which everyone walked back into winter feeling elevated. Patriotic, even.

Here's a video that showcases the making of Canada Day II, released in 2011:

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