Harris Eisenstadt - Recent Developments [Songlines - 2017]Canadian Jazz drummer/composer/bandleader Harris Eisenstadt has created a brilliantly intelligent hybrid of melodic and free jazz over the course of a long and prolific career, dating back to 1999. The new album "Recent Developments" is the first recording of his I've heard that isn't part of his 'Canada Day' series, which maintained a similar lineup for its four volumes. Many of the same collaborators are still present here, such as Nate Wooley on trumpet and Eivind Opsvik on string bass.
That said, this album has a distinctly different feel than "Canada Day". In my review of "Canada Day IV" I described it as 'smoky lounge jazz'. This album doesn't have enough of a consistent tonality or rhythm to call it 'lounge'. When melodies do appear, they are of a technical, non-repetitive nature, and played to a curiously sparse backdrop of subtle midtempo drumming and 1-2 other melodic timbres.
Eisenstadt has a penchant for brevity here, something you don't often find on free jazz recordings. There are 14 songs, and yet the album totals only 40 minutes or so, with many tracks barely breaking the one minute mark. It would seem the album is meant to be a single piece, with each section of the main work titled "Part 1", "Part 2" and so on, each separated by a short and punctual interlude.
There are 8 total musicians, though they don't all appear in every track. No more than 3 instruments ever seem to be playing, with a general sense of relaxed sparsitude pervading. The instruments used are mostly traditional orchestral timbres: strings, brass and winds. As such, this album feels like a step in a neo-classical direction from the world of jazz, with a softened 'brass chorale' sound. The musicians' timbres are tastefully rounded and ear pleasing, sonorous and tuneful even during frequent lapses into free rhythm. The only unexpected inclusion is a banjo, a decision I am still not sure what to make of.
The music exudes a genuine peace of mind, reminding me of the spiritual clarity one experiences after a long hike or period of physical exertion, that sensation of an emptied, lucid mind. Harris Eisenstadt has created that zen space in which the mind is free to rest and play.
As with the music from "Canada Day", there is a clever balance between improvisation and composed material. Odd metered ostinati abound, natural considering the music is written by a drummer. Their usage reminds me of 20th century classical composers like Aaron Copland, who took folk melodies and placed them in dense, polyrhythmic orchestrations: the technicality is cleverly hidden. For all the tunefulness, one hardly notices the rhythmic symmetricality at first. The music is easily described as beautiful, yet it is deeply disjointed, each recognizable figure separated by chaotic passages in which the structure and direction break down completely.
This album is quite the balanced, well considered creation, bringing the visceral spontaneity of free music into the poetic, emotionally relatable context of a larger composition, and sanding off the edges for a luminous harmony. It requires more focus to enjoy than the extended jams of the "Canada Day" series, but has more structure and direction as well. I would place it with the best of the Songlines label catalogue, alongside favorites by Michael Blake like "Fulfillment" and "In the Grand of Scheme of Things", and all volumes of "Canada Day".Josh Landry