By Bill Meyer
Drummer and composer Harris Eisenstadt’s Canada Day spent six years as a quintet or larger, but not much stays the same these days. The second album by the Canada Day Quartet also debuts a new line-up, the first with a piano. Eisenstadt and English keyboardist Alexander Hawkins aren’t strangers, having worked together previously with clarinetist François Houle, but this is the first time that Eisenstadt has given so much space in his flagship band to a chordal instrument.
Ironically, many of the tunes that Eisenstadt brought to the group for this tour (this is the second Canada Day album in a review to have come together during a tour in Europe) are uniquely suited to be played without a piano. He wrote them at one stretch during a residence in Poschiavo, Switzerland, and many of them are “single-line, three-system unison compositions” that are independent of the size of the ensemble. But you use what you have when you’re in need, and the combo at hand is certainly the one you would want if you need creative minds to make something work. Trumpeter Nate Wooley, who has been with Canada Day from the start, and returning bassist Pascal Niggenkemper are masters of what you might call integrated technique; they can play expressively and persuasively from within their instruments’ traditions, and they can also play very, very far outside of them. Put newcomer Hawkins in front of a piano and he won’t make you forget what instrument you’re hearing, but he’ll likely shift your attention to the breadth of his stylistic command and the structural essentials of whatever music is being played.
That structural clarity pays off right away. The album’s opening piece, “Poschiavo 35,” features one instrument after another peeling away from the ensemble like barn-storming pilots from the dawn of aviation, executing challenging moves quite close to the ground. Canada Day’s current line-up adheres to one of the group’s longtime imperatives; it looks like a jazz band, which allows Eisenstadt to use jazz as a framework for various non-jazz strategies and sounds. In the past, he’s used African-inspired melodies and chamber music dynamics; here, the outside information often comes from a soloist. On “Poschiavo Four-Voice 1,” Wooley’s solo cruises lyrically through Caribbean waters, which Hawkins first echoes and then confounds with phrases that turn parted wake into counter-churning whirlpool. Wooley’s vocalizations during the introduction to “Poschiavo 36” and Niggenkemper’s unaccompanied timbral extravaganza on “Poshiavo Four-Vice 4” each set you up for something stranger than what follows, leaving it to the listener to ponder the music’s connections.
While the performance of streamlined structures by concentrated musical intelligences yields music that gets more surprising as you listen past its more familiar components, those recognizable elements give the listener something to hang onto. The constant shift between poles keeps Quartet Live lively.