“Canada Day Octet” (482 Music, 2012) ****½
“Canada Day III” (Songlines, 2012) *****
By Steve Mossberg
An ombudsman, from Old Norse, is a trusted representative who communicates back and forth between a governing body and the general public. It also the name that Harris Eisenstadt has aptly chosen for the central pieces on his new recording “Canada Day Octet.” Along with “Canada Day III” it comes hotly anticipated to jazz listeners this summer.
Behind his drums at a concert at Amherst College last March, Eisenstadt acted the ombudsman, warmly inviting the audience into his musical world with open arms and dry humor. Peppering the explanations of his abstract work with humility and the odd Yiddish phrase, he made it clear that it was the audience’s opportunity to embrace his concepts and share in the experience – everyone was welcome.
The long-standing quintet featured on “Canada Day III,” are Matt Bauder on tenor sax, Nate Wooley on trumpet, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, the leader on drums, and Garth Stevenson, replacing Eivind Opsvik in the upright bass chair. They are joined on “Canada Day Octet,” by veteran Ray Anderson on trombone, Jason Mears on alto sax, and the pace-setting tuba player Dan Peck.
The four “Ombudsman” pieces that dominate “Octet” are steeped in polyrhythms, the interlocking African-descended patterns that gave birth to all swinging music. In this situation, they give the record an overall sound of the mother continent, and combined with the weighty horn charts call to mind the work of groups like Peter Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphics Ensemble and McCoy Tyner’s late 60s nonet. Though Eisenstadt may be stylistically trotting through the Gambia on “Octet,” he places on it a stamp of very high quality and originality with his complex, appealingly off-kilter compositional voice.
The large ensemble is powerful in the dense arrangements and always effective when called upon to improvise. The leader opens “Ombudsman 1” with an understated but energetic solo, propelling the ensemble intro the musical meeting at high velocity. Later, Peck and Stevenson take a probing duet together. Tuba blats and overtone-rich bowing carve out the low-end territory sensitively, conversing mindfully with each other in a moment of harmonic uncertainty. On “Ombudsman 2,” Bauder winds his sweet-toned modern/throwback tenor through Eisenstadt’s rhythmic maze, while Dingman plays for contrast, charting a textural course above the subtle, but insistent drum support. The volcanic Wooley is featured heavily on “Ombudsman 3” and contributes fluttering atonal lines, dodging melodic leads, and spittle-soaked sound experiments, all with aplomb and ample consideration for the greater narrative. On the fourth “Ombudsman,” the most overtly Afro-funk composition on the record, Dingman shows another side, flying out of his vibraphone theme into an energetic, percussive solo. Anderson is also funky here, playing in the avant-blues mode for which he is so renowned.
The simple, elegant “Ballad For 10.6.7,” closes out the album. Eisenstadt composed the tune after losing a great deal of his own material in a hard drive failure (every great composer has experienced a similar plight at some point). The reed/brass counterpoint clashes here with the straightforward Western flavor of the music itself, and the result is a bit awkward at first, perhaps consciously so. He chose to include it on the recording on the strength of the improvisations played in ombudsman-like fashion by the soloists, and they indeed do so with abundant inspiration and masterful execution.
On “Canada Day III,” Eisenstadt presents his musical vision in a more contemporary Western setting, and the compositions are all watertight and tremendously imaginative. The rhythmic complexity and flexibility are still present, but don’t evoke their African roots so profoundly this time. The group is ready to turn on a dime with his rapidly transforming musical ideas, and always fill the gaps between composition and improvisation seamlessly.
Like his fellow drummer/composer John Hollenbeck, Eisenstadt uses the open instrumentation the ensemble and versatility of the vibraphone (particularly great under the mallets of Dingman) to give his music harmonic freedom, ambient texture and percussive attack at the necessary times. “Slow and Steady” feels full and dreamy with its overlapping minimalist layers. “A Whole New Amount of Interactivity” has a post-rock intensity but a sense of great openness and possibility as the group converges in unison on the complex melodic lines. Despite the modernity of the ensemble, they have no aversion to swinging hard, as evidenced on “The Magician of Lublin,” or to old-school aggressive free jazz blowing (“Nosey Parker”).
With his two new Canada Day albums, Harris Eisenstadt has clearly established himself as one of the most vital composers and bandleaders in contemporary jazz. The best part is, along with material and performances that blossom further upon repeated listening, that the music is immediately accessible and visceral, with no pandering or compromise in sight. The music and musicians seem the perfect ombudsmen for creative music in 2012.