For some, old-growth forests are places of contemplation, naturally sacred spaces of cathedralesque calm, lit by slanting beams of leaf-filtered light. For others, they are living warehouses of board feet ready for extraction.
And even though he maintains that he has no explicitly environmental message, it’s easy to see where Harris Eisenstadt stands on this spectrum: his new quartet is called Old Growth Forest, and on its self-titled debut the tracks are named for towering conifers such as “Larch”, “Redwood”, “Hemlock”, and “Fir”.
The real source of the drummer and composer’s latest concept, however, is a rich humus of interpersonal experience. Although the new band marks the first time that Eisenstadt, saxophonist Tony Malaby, trombonist Jeb Bishop, and bassist Jason Roebke have collaborated on a formal basis, they’ve been connected in other, looser ways for more than a decade. Bishop, Roebke, and Eisenstadt worked together as a trio in the early 2000s, and then on top of that there’s the proximity effect.
“The first place I got in New York, when I moved back in 2006, it was next door to Tony’s place, so we were hanging out a lot of the time and talking about finding a way to play,” Eisenstadt explains in a phone call from his Brooklyn apartment. “And I think he had maybe done something with Jeb or Jason; I forget. So we were just like, ‘Yeah, we should try it as a quartet sometime.’ It was just one of those conversations that happen a lot. Some pan out, some don’t, and maybe some pan out later on.”
This particular seed took almost a decade to establish itself, but once it did, it sprouted fast. “We played one rehearsal, and then a two-set gig, and then we made a record the next day,” says Eisenstadt, adding that he sees all of his musical projects as essentially “conversational” rather than dealing in fixed structures. “We kind of made things intentionally open-ended, so that we could sort things out on the gig.”
For all that, though, Old Growth Forest is as sturdy as, well, a thousand-year-old sequoia. From the rhizomic interplay of Eisenstadt and Roebke, Malaby and Bishop build ever-ascending melodic structures that often twine around each other in loose counterpoint. There’s air and space in this music, but also a sense of deep community, of being connected on a cellular level.
“Hopefully, the improvisations are related to the compositions, either just gesturally or in their mood,” Eisenstadt says. “That was kind of what I was up to in the writing. There’s some balladish spaces, there’s rockers, there’s African-diasporic feeling, cyclical things… Not that people have to stay in those spaces—and we didn’t, quite often—but they’re points of departure and things we can refer to in the course of open playing. That’s how the structures work.”
It’s democratic music, in other words. But is it also a political or environmental statement?
“It’s not explicitly political—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have political implications.…or a sociocultural analogue,” Eisenstadt says. “That’s all there, without having to put a banner on it saying ‘This is a political act.’ ”
Harris Eisenstadt’s Old Growth Forest plays the Western Front on Friday (February 3).