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Complex and Diverse: Harris Eisenstadt’s Old Growth Forest

Gone are the days when drummers were considered musically illiterate timekeepers. Today many bandleaders who play drums also write, and in the span of two weeks, Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares has presented two of the most compelling drummer/composers in jazz. With few others, John Hollenbeck, who performed with his Claudia Quintet in Holyoke on May 27, and Harris Eisenstadt, who brought Old Growth Forest to Northampton’s Parlor Room on June 11, stand among the preeminent composers who play drums.


But Eisenstadt is a case apart. In all of his projects (Canada Day, Golden State, September Trio, Old Growth Forest) and on all his recordings as a leader (20 and counting), he is the sole composer, and a convincing one. His set in Northampton featured 10 new, unrecorded originals that showed the full range of his composing skills.


Old Growth Forest is Tony Malaby, tenor and soprano saxophone, Jeb Bishop, trombone and Jason Roebke, bass. The new book of tunes, honed during a February tour (their Jazz Shares stop was snowed out) and a June 10 hit at the Lilypad in Cambridge, were complex and richly expressive. The Jazz Shares concert was professionally recorded; perhaps we will get to hear it again someday.


Each piece in the set, such as Shade Canopy and Biomass, referenced some aspect of the forested world. The music was as varied as the ecosystem it references. Tempo shifts, and the mood along with it, often occurred within individual compositions. The range of cleanly articulated sound that emanated from Tony Malaby’s saxophones was spellbinding. His front line partner Jeb Bishop delivered a diverse set of complete ideas with the full-throated vocal quality we look for in a trombonist. Whether in lock step or at cross rhythm, Roebke and Eisenstadt were in shared mental space. The swing sections seemed deeper surrounded as they were by periods of suspended time, the ambiguity heightening the experience of certainty that comes with a groove.

During our post concert hang, which for Bishop and Roebke extended to the following day, we got to find out more. Bishop is learning the Boston jazz scene, having relocated from North Carolina a little over a year ago. Although born in the Tar Heel state, he came of musical age in Chicago and is closely identified with the creative music scene in the city. He has deep roots there.


So does Roebke, who has longstanding associations with Mike Reed, Jason Adasiewicz and Jason Stein. The bassist recounted the completely unique experience of playing free jazz in some of the biggest arenas in North America. Roebke, along with drummer Mike Pride are two-thirds of bass clarinetist Jason Stein’s Locksmith Isadore. Opening more than 60 shows for Stein’s sister, Amy Schumer, brought them to Madison Square Garden, Air Canada Centre and Joe Louis Arena, playing for thousands more than the few dozen denizens who usually turn out for avant-garde music. We talked about the AACM and the challenges of keeping organizations vibrant, and we talked about Roscoe Mitchell, who Roebke saw every day for a year and a half as his copyist.


As Jazz Shares prepares for a smooth landing of Season 5 on Saturday, June 17 with the Curtis Brothers, it is a joy to reflect on all the good music that came our way this year. Here’s to more years and more inspiring music.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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