Harris Eisenstadt – Guewel (CF 123)
Drummer Harris Eisenstadt makes no attempt at “authenticity” in his use of the Sengelese music that inspires his latest album, Guewel (the Wolof word for griots). As an North American percussionist, he doesn’t presume to recreate or imitate the music of West Africa. However, he’s made a serious study of the music, and the learning of a practitioner informs his incorporation of traditional Sabar rhythms and Senegalese mbalax pop music into his own. Eisenstadt distances himself from the traditional music right off the bat by assembling a quintet with unique instrumentation — trumpeters Nate Wooley and Taylor Ho Bynum, French horn player Mark Taylor, and baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton. It’s a combination of instruments not found in any tradition, African or Western. It’s not a New Orleans brass band; it’s not a classic brass quintet; it’s certainly not an mbalax dance band. But it is a group that’s capable of making a joyous shout that’s emotionally equivalent to New Orleans jazz and Afro-pop music, as well as the delicacy and balance of tone and texture heard in classical music.
Eisenstadt’s role in the music makes both these qualities possible. He’s a minimalist in that he doesn’t play a lot of his kit at once, his rhythms are stripped to their essentials, he doesn’t ornament a beat as much as define or distill it. The spaces in his rhythms let the subtleties of his touch stand out in high relief; they also nicely set off the nuances of the others in the band. Sometimes he uses Senegalese rhythms to propel the band in a conventional sense, but often they provide a mold that shapes the improvisers’ lines or they co-exist as one of several events unfolding in the music. Sometimes the Sabar rhythms disappear entirely as the music veers off on a tangent, sometimes they are implied as the players vary and transform them.
The mbalax melodies Eisenstadt has matched to the traditional rhythms undergo similar transformations. “N’daga/Coonu Aduna” loses its smooth African lilt to a spiny Steve Lacy-like swing. “Barambiye/Djarama” journeys from a disjointed Braxtonian klangfarbenmelodie to riffing ensemble to untethered free blowing. “Dayourabina/Thiolena” becomes just one element in a sound collage incorporating abstract sound, linear variation, and irrepressible, buoyant rhythm.
Trumpeters Wooley and Bynum are a playful pair, they clearly delight in one another’s company. A boyish glee underlies their duets on “N’daga/Coonu Aduna” and they can pivot instantly from rough, growling textures to clean, almost electronic sounds, or from plunger mute wah-wahs to flaming energy playing. Baritone saxophonist Sinton possesses similar range, cranking up a head of free jazz steam on “Barambiye/Djarama” and adding heft to riffs with his powerful low register. Mark Taylor’s French horn frequently provides a linear warmth and chesty mid-range voice that helps fill out the ensemble. He provides marvelous linear counterpoint during the group improvisation on “Kaolak/N’Wolof.” Because he never crowds a soloist, Eisenstadt is an exceptional duet partner and his exchanges with band members provide some of the music inspired moments on the album.
Although Eisenstadt never uses his West African inspirations in traditional ways, he has paid them the highest possible respect by using them in the most authentic way possible — to create music true to himself and his musical conception.