Bruce Eisenbeil Sextet | Inner Constellation Volume One | Nemu Records

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Bruce Eisenbeil (guitar) | Jean Cook (violin) | Nate Wooley (trumpet) | Aaron Ali Shaikh (alto sax) | Tom Abbs (acoustic bass) | Nasheet Waits (drums)

Inner Constellation is a composed-throughpiece, recorded live in the studio without punch-ins or edits. The track points are provided for the listener’s convenience and do not indicate divisions of the work.

Produced by Bruce Eisenbeil. Recorded on 22 September 2004. Recorded and mixed by James Farber at Avatar Studios, NYC. Mastered by GregCalbi at Sterling Sound, NYC. Assistant engineer: Steve Fallone


Don’t let the corrosive guitar that begins Bruce Eisenbeil’s

extended “Inner Constellation” fool you into thinking you’re about to hear a psychedelic rave-up or some proto-fusion. Once bass and drums join in, followed by violin and horns, it’s apparent “Inner Constellation” (a 45-minute work recorded in one long take, meant to be listened to straight through from beginning to end, notwithstanding 27 individual track numbers and the enigmatic inner titles) is an example of what’s still sometimes called “free jazz” or “creative improvised music,” terms that ceased being meaningful as long ago as the 1970s, when composition asserted itself as a force to be reckoned with in the jazz avant-garde. There are numerous passages here that sound collectively improvised, and as many others that sound preplanned. Happily, because Eisenbeil’s writing is so open-ended and the members of his sextet give themselves over to it so completely, you’re never quite sure where composition ends and improvisation begins, or when the two overlap— a measure of Eisenbeil’s success. The title suggests Coltrane, surely no accident given that Eisenbeil says he immersed himself in the saxophonist’s recordings as a beginner (and studied for a decade with the late Dennis Sandole, a guitarist and harmonic theoretician who was one of Coltrane’s early teachers). Even so, “Inner Constellation’s ongoing introduction of new themes and different method of generating heat suggest a closer affinity with Cecil Taylor— possibly reflecting Eisenbeil’s recent experience (together with violinist Jean Cook) in one of the pianist’s large ensembles. And just as Taylor’s music is always readily identifiable by his karate chops and full-keyboard pirouettes, what stamps “Inner Constellation” as Eisenbeil’s is his menacing tremolo rumble.

Part of it is that Eisenbeil is wielding a Fender Stratocaster, the quintessential rock ‘n’ roll ax, as opposed to the Ibanez acoustic and the Gibson L5 he plays on the three trio performances that close the CD. The Stratocaster was no casual choice. Eisenbeil says he wanted “to create a musical atmosphere similar to the way people actually tend to interact, including sometimes talking past or over one another.” So he needed a guitar loud enough to cut through drums and horns. But Eisenbeil also has a generational tie to the Stratocaster. Born in Chicago in 1968 but growing up mostly in Plainfield, New Jersey he listened to and played rock ‘n’ roll— and as with most musicians his age and younger, jazz came later, “Inner Constellation” occupies a different universe from rock, yet the guitar lines that set it in motion and keep it hurtling forward through its many shifts in mood have a barbed-wire intensity more commonly associated with Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck than with anyone in jazz.

Simultaneously Eisenbeil’s breakthrough as a composer and his finest recorded effort as a player to date, “Inner Constellation” is based on a set tone field “sort of like stars in the night sky,” the guitarist says. “The tone field expands through five or six octaves, and you know how people have always liked connecting the stars to make figures and images? Well, we’re doing the same thing with pitches. The piece explores contrasts in the weight of sound, by which I mean the melodic lines and the rhythm go in a horizontal direction, but the vertical pressure of the chording, of the harmony, is constantly there compressing or expanding.” There is a good deal of counterpoint, much of it taking a form that resembles call and response. But it’s counterpoint based on what Eisenbeil calls “stratification”—”contrasting layers of tone colors, harmony, rhythm, and expression”—rather than conventional melodic or contrapuntal imitation. A handy illustration of this comes on the section aptly subtitled “Triple Astral Texture” (#11], where Cook’s serene violin is pitted against edgy horns and thrashing guitar, bass, and drums.

The entire piece is a parable of chaos and order. Other especially gripping moments along the way include Nate Wooley’s slow-burning trumpet solo— pensive and lyrical, then growling and spitty—-on “Mask in Profile” (#10], and Aaron Ali Shaikh’s smeared, rolling alto solo on “Dream Breath” [#15], Eisenbeil gives his players plenty of room to maneuver, and “Inner Constellation” is as much theirs as his. Cook has a lot of wood in her sound, and a lot of rosin; she brings a hint of her instrument’s noble romantic heritage to even the most agitated and convoluted ensemble passages. Tom Abbs’s bass is supple and aggressive; and Nasheet Waits— the best-known of these musicians, by virtue of his work in Jason Moran and Andrew Hill’s groups— remains sensitive to dynamics even when drumming full throttle.

“Inner Constellation” is so remarkable the freely improvised trio pieces that end the CD risk going overlooked. They shouldn’t be, because in addition to helping give us a complete picture of Eisenbeil, they’re full of imaginative touches. On both “Rain in the Face” and “Cues to the Vagabond,” it sounds as if Eisenbeil is detuning his guitar or maybe disassembling it altogether; with Abbs and Waits urging him on, he’s employing techniques associated with Derek Bailey and other free improvisers without forsaking the rhythmic syntax of jazz. “Cues to the Vagabond” builds such tension over Watts’s rolling drums and Abbs’s stop-and-go bass that if one of the musicians didn’t let loose with a yell toward the end, you might. By contrast “Receding Storm” is wistful and chime-like— the CD’s goodbye kiss. Together with the title work, these three performances leave you eager to hear whatever this talented young guitarist comes up with next. — Francis Davis

Francis Devis is jazz critic for the Village Voice and a Contributing Editor of The Atlantic. His books include The History of the Blues, Like Young, and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader.

The astonishing Inner Constellation Volume One

most definitely qualifies as difficult music. Not due to normal reasons including complexity, intricacy, abrasiveness or lack of musical touchstones, but rather that the title track, at forty-seven-plus minutes, needs to be listened to in toto.

Guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil has much to say about the compositional impulse and structure of the work, from the techniques employed to the emotions and atmosphere he desires to present to the listener. All of this information is fine, and much of it in retrospect becomes audible and validated through multiple listenings.

It is the sound, however, and the sheer energy and intelligence behind it all, that makes this record something in which to rejoice. From the first gnarly Stratocaster guitar riffs, this piece just does not let go, and as spaces are being filled and emptied and textures actually felt, the music is alive and breathing. Rhythms coalesce, pick up steam and affect the body, only to drift away. Independent instrumental lines fly apart and come together, creating aural densities and mental colors. Images abound independent of evocative titles given to the track points. Breathless, and possibly shell-shocked after the experience, the impulse is to immediately hit replay.

Eisenbeil is quick to credit the members of his sextet for the final shape of the work. The band learned their parts by ear, using the score as a map offering signposts. Each band member clearly relishes playing this music, with past experiences well-preparing him/her for this kind of structured freedom.

Violinist Jean Cook, recorded far left, is as sharp as a tack and her sound is felt surrounding the others as much as being an individual line. Alto saxophonist Aaron Ali Shaikh and trumpeter Nate Wooley share the right channel, as often creating their parts together as separately, throwing fire bolts into the mix. The rhythm section of bassist Tom Abbs and drummer Nasheet Waits are in the center rear of the mix, constantly shifting the pulse and feel, either pushing and pulling the music or keeping the fires burning.

In the middle and directly in front is Eisenbeil, who sounds as if he can barely contain himself with rapid fire notes, string sounds and chordal strumming that flies up and down the neck. He clearly leads the band, but he can also be heard reveling in what is happening by how he responds. Not to be forgotten, there are three discreet tracks after this whirlwind. Each about three minutes and exploring a completely different mood, with Eisenbeil’s typical intensity.

Thrilling, exhausting, uplifting and energizing, Inner Constellation is music for the long haul, to be savored again and again as music for the body and the mind. Unforgettable from its first minutes, it will never let go and is most definitely one of the best releases of 2007. — Bud Kopman

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil

has chosen the preferred instrument of rock guitarists, the Fender Stratocaster, as the focal point for his creative improvised spontaneous compositions wrapped in forms and functions based in the modern mainstream. The rhythm team of bassist Tom Abbs and drummer Nasheet Waits keeps loose time in check, while front-line players violinist Jean Cook, trumpeter Nate Wooley, and alto saxophonist Aaron Ali Shaikhdart in and out of melody lines, free improv, and counterpoint. The combination produces an arresting sound that approaches an unrivaled sonic text. The centerpiece of the project is the 47-and-a-half-minute title track, split into 27 sections.

You hear open-ended spontaneous compositions with complex melodies flowing freely in a static manner. Brawny swing and polyrhythms suggest the influences of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor, as Eisenbeil’s chopped and channeled block chords and blunt single lines construct and deconstruct at will. Very little is serene or introspective up to piece number eight, “Effigy,” and number nine, “Totem,” while the bass and drums snuggle up to the beautiful unison harmony of number 12, “Walkabout,” while number 15, “Dream Breath,” is a free bop discourse, number 18, “Wormhole Thief,” is basic modal, and number 20, “Dragonfly,” presents a complex modality. The end pieces shift to a more liquid, then manic, then chameleonic wash of color and rhythm, with Shaikh’s alto voice pronounced, with more sonic textures explored by the finale, “Some Ocean.”

The remaining three pieces are three to three and three-quarters minutes in length, with two showing the influences of Derek Bailey and Loren MazzaCane Connors on Eisenbeil, and the last cut, “Receding Storm,” a sweet return, approaching a parable lullaby, with a very restrained guitar sound that is a polar opposite to the rest of the disc. It’s clear Eisenbeil cannot rest on his laurels or previous achievements, and is striving for something quite different. While Inner Constellation is clearly ambitious, talent and smarts are also here, indicating more new music to come. Michael G. Nastos


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One thought on “Bruce Eisenbeil Sextet | Inner Constellation Volume One | Nemu Records

  1. On Inner Constellation, his fifth release as a leader, New York-based guitarist and composer Bruce Eisenbeil attempts to link the musical worlds of John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton with the vocabulary of contemporary classical composers such as Elliot Carter, Iannis Xenakis, György Ligeti and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

    Over two years, Eisenbeil composed “Inner Constellation,” a composition that uses the instrumentation of Cecil Taylor’s sextet from the late 1970s but alternates the piano with a loud Fender Stratocaster guitar. This forty-seven minute-plus composition, inspired by the stars in the night sky, features twenty-seven well-articulated themes that are followed by an extended improvisation for specific players. Eisenbeil describes this composition as a tone field that expands through six octaves, where the melodic line and the propulsive rhythm go horizontally, while they are balanced and pressured vertically by the constantly shifting chording and harmonies.

    Eisenbeil says that the music explores an idyllic place “where people want to be part of a future that invites surprise and where spontaneity is welcome.” He adds that this music offers a view of one’s life after one has been devastated by loss, stating, “It is a splintered style of storytelling—breaking a mirror and piecing it together with small parts missing.”

    This spiritual quest, similar to Coltrane’s or to a psychoanalytic process, is affirmed in the expressive titles that Eisenbeil gives to these pieces. Some are referring to Zen Buddhism, such as “Death Once Dead, No Dying Then,” which quotes 17th-century Zen master Hakuin. Meanwhile, others reflect a full-minded and innocent exploration of the night phenomenon.

    Challenging and cerebral? Obviously. But Eisenbeil and his sextet members are all alumnus of forward-thinking jazz and improvised music composers, and breathe so much passion and beauty into the music. Alto saxophonist Aaron Ali Shaikh performed and recorded with Taylor and Braxton; trumpeter Nate Wooly also performed with Braxton; violinist Jean Cook recorded with Braxton and performed with Taylor; bassist Tom Abbs has worked with Laurence “Butch” Morris and Borah Bergman; and drummer Nasheet Waits has worked with Andrew Hill, Peter Brötzmann and Steve Coleman.

    Eisenbeil, who has also worked with Taylor and studied with harmonic theoretician Dennis Sandole (one of Coltrane’s early teachers), follows his heroes and always seeks new ways to advance and revolutionize his capabilities as a musician and artist. Throughout these compositions, he and his sextet members play on themes that reflect a greater chaos and order. Each musician has enough room to maneuver and use this freedom to spice “Inner Constellation” with so many colors and expressions that all the scholastic introduction becomes redundant. It is such a remarkable composition, executed in such a striking and dynamic manner, that it is no doubt Eisenbeil’s best recorded effort so far.

    Eisenbeil closes the recording with three short pieces for a trio, two of which pay tribute to the improvisation techniques of guitarist Derek Bailey, while stressing the forceful rhythmic interaction of Abbs and Waits. The last piece, “Receding Storm,” is a gentle and peaceful closure to this masterful and most satisfying recording.

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