coast weekly article

Coast Weekly, August 12, 1999
OUTSIDE IN – Guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil Keeps the spirit of free jazz alive

It’s been almost 20 years since the demise of “fusion” and the return of straight-ahead jazz into the musical mainstream. But what stands out most noticeably in many recent recordings and concert venues is how watered-down and predictable the music has become.

Despite jazz’s great potential for bold experimentation and creative spontaneity, a majority of today’s jazz musicians seem locked into a commercial/pop mode that refuses to challenge audiences or move the music in new directions.

One exception is New York-based guitarist and composer Bruce Eisenbeil, whose growing recognition on the East Coast signals the emergence of a true musical anomaly – a jazz musician who is pushing the boundaries of jazz with a blend of the traditional and avant-garde.

Eisenbeil, who will be performing this weekend at the Martin LaBorde Gallery in Carmel and the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, eschews heavy electronic amplification and overly stylized arrangements for a clean, stripped-down sound that emphasizes the simple elegance of his compositions and the pure sound of the music’s instrumentation.

As heard on his debut trio recording for the CIMP label, Nine Wings, Eisenbeil has welded the best of straight ahead and free jazz, creating a music that defies the labeling of avant-garde jazz as little more than undisciplined cacophony. And what the music may sometimes lack in immediate accessibility, is compensated for by its dynamic energy and exuberance. “The music’s not necessarily about playing from the mind but from the heart,” says Eisenbeil. “It comes from following the group force and developing that. It’s what helps perpetuate a beautiful musical experience.” Although influenced by traditional jazz guitar players like Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino, Eisenbeil’s approach favors the cascading reams of notes and sound dynamics of saxophone players.

“Conceptually horn players offer the most resistance, and what attracts me is resistance,” explains Eisenbeil. “What happens in my mind is, when I hear things that cause me to be puzzled, question marks go off. With Charlie Parker’s sound I couldn’t stand to listen to him, the emotional impact initially was really difficult. But I kept on listening and all of a sudden it began to make sense. It was the same with Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. I love that kind of music. It has a real organic quality and feels very rooted, almost like a neighborhood community.”

For Saturday’s performance at the Martin LaBorde Gallery, Eisenbeil will be teamed with Ernesto Diaz-Infante on piano and Pat Harman on bass. With little more than an afternoon’s rehearsal expected before the show, Eisenbeil says the trio performance should be an exciting evening of no-holds-barred experimentation.

“It will be highly improvised,” admits Eisenbeil, “and what’s likely to happen is some strategies will be expressed beforehand in the afternoon rehearsal but other than that, there won’t be a lot of notated material. It will be up to the three of us to focus on each other’s sound and make it all work. It’s a pretty high tightrope, but the higher it is, the more fun it is.”

For his solo performance on Sunday, Eisenbeil says the challenge will be to create enough dynamics to engage the audience and overcome the limits of performing with a single instrument.

“The approach in solo performance involves [creating] much larger sound masses on guitar, playing melody with chords,” explains Eisenbeil. “It’s totally critical. I want as big a sound affecting people as possible. The challenge is to make it modern and put it forward in such a way the audience is intrigued and interested and engaged for the duration.”

– Richard Pitnick