By Troy Collins
Old Growth Forest features an augmented version of drummer Harris Eisenstadt’s old trio with Chicago-based bassist Jason Roebke and fellow Windy City trombonist Jeb Bishop. Ten years ago, when he moved from Los Angeles to New York, Eisenstadt decided to expand the ensemble into a quartet that included saxophonist Tony Malaby. Unfortunately, gigs for a tour were scarce, so the project was shelved until September 2015, when Eisenstadt reunited the original members to play during his month-long residency at The Stone. The band went into the studio immediately afterwards to record this rich, expansive album.
This long-gestating venture features a delicate balance between freedom and form, lending the proceedings a looser, more spontaneous feel than some of Eisenstadt’s other more compositionally-minded endeavors, such as his various Canada Day units. Nonetheless, the record’s eight compositions all convey enough basic structure to provide direction for his bandmates to impart a poetic sensibility to each of the songs.
Most of the album’s tunes are named after old growth trees; “Larch” opens the set with a delightfully circuitous theme, setting the stage for a series of brawny brass and reed extrapolations. In contrast, “Pine” reveals a tentatively abstract vibe, roiling with subterranean trombone ululations punctuated by turbulent tenor testimonials. Alternating moods continue through the set: the angular “Redwood” features blistering horn interchanges at a brisk tempo, while “Spruce” unfolds in relaxed fashion, underscored by pointillist embellishments and languid glissandos. “Fir” continues the proceedings’ elegant deportment, highlighting the leader’s nimble dexterity, whereas “Big Basin” and “Cedar” close out the date with boldly expressive statements; the former contains some of Malaby and Bishop’s most unabashedly lyrical exchanges on record. Malaby and Bishop also weave contrapuntal improvisations full of ecstatic brio throughout the date. Their muscular interplay rarely abandons formal constraints, but finds novel ways to reinterpret the material. Roebke’s melodic bass holds down the mid-range for the frontline, while Eisenstadt, a magnanimous leader and tasteful drummer, encourages his colleagues with supple rhythm shifts and colorful textural embellishments.
Compared to Eisenstadt’s sophisticated and heavily arranged Canada Day compositions, the blowing vehicles presented by the quartet showcase a different side of his abilities, both as a composer and performer, while hinting at his unbridled percussive prowess as a sideman – documented on recent releases like Larry Ochs’ phenomenal The Fictive Five (Tzadik, 2015) or the drummer’s numerous contributions to trumpeter Nate Wooley’s projects. Revealing ample sonic variety, Old Growth Forest keenly demonstrates the visceral appeal of Eisenstadt’s more freewheeling approach.