Bruce Eisenbeil Studies Jazz Greats and Finds His Own Instrumental Voice

May 1, 2009

BRUCE EISENBEIL IS A BIG APPLE-BASED guitarist who began playing when he was four, and had already delved deeply into the music of John Coltrane by his early teens. After studying with master guitarists such as Harry Leahy, Eisenbeil spent a few years at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood before returning to the East Coast to study with Coltrane’s former teacher, Dennis Sandole. “He made me realize that there was an evolution of conceptual development in jazz, and music in general, which was a real turning point for me,” says Eisenbeil. “I went from participating in the current mainstream of jazz, to composing original music and developing my own instrumental voice.”

That voice speaks multiple dialects, and has allowed Eisenbeil to play with some of the most forward-thinking musicians on the planet, including Cecil Taylor, Evan Parker, Milford Graves, Wolfgang Fuchs, Andrew Cyrille, and Hill Greene. Typically wielding a Fender Strat, Eisenbeil is as adept at subtly manipulating tonal and textural nuance from a single note as he is firing off fusillades of polyphonic and polyrhythmic fury—be it within free jazz improvisations or heady compositions requiring multidimensional maps to navigate.

An example of the latter is Eisenbeil’s 2007 opus, Inner Constellation Volume One, an extraordinarily complex work for six instruments that draws inspiration from advanced contemporary classical and jazz concepts. More recent projects include Solar Forge [ESP] by Totem (“a noise rock free improvisation trio that ventures from walls of sound to exploring microscopic sound worlds”), Home Again [Konnex] with the Dave Fox Group, and Shadow Machine [Pogus] with analog synthesizer pioneer Tom Hamilton. Currently, Eisenbeil is completing volumes two and three of Inner Constellation, as well as a collection of “beautiful” songs unlike any he’s released before.

Step us through the creative process for Inner Constellation, including the way you used Finale.

I wanted to write an orchestral piece, but it seemed much more practical to write something that I could get performed and recorded in a realistic timeframe, and participate with. Cecil Taylor had released several sextet recordings during the late ’70s—with bass, drums, saxophone, trumpet, violin, and his piano— and I wondered if I could do something similar, substituting guitar for the piano. That way, the instrumentation would still function as sort of a mini-orchestra—with woodwinds, horns, strings, and percussion.

I used Finale while experimenting with compositional concepts, because there are a lot of different tempos and meters going on simultaneously within the piece, and being able to hear the individual parts playing together using General MIDI instruments saved a lot of time while I was figuring out what worked and what didn’t. Then, once the piece was complete, I was able to print out individual scores for each specific instrument, in addition to giving each musician an audio recording of the MIDI simulation, so they could hear how all six parts sounded together.

Talk a little bit about the conceptual basis of the piece.

By way of reference, Coltrane’s “Naima” uses a lot of chords derived from an Ab major bebop scale—an eight-note scale spelled Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, E, F, G, Ab. [A “bebop scale” adds a chromatic passing tone to a traditional seven-note scale to make it rhythmically symmetrical. See “Bebop Scales: Not Just For Bebop” in the March 2009 issue of Bass Player for more information]. What I chose to do with Inner Constellation was to use that sound, but connect that scale with a G major bebop scale, so that you have a scale that extends two octaves before it repeats, with the two scales connected by a minor 9th. So, placing the G major scale first, you’re going to have G, A, B, C, D, D#, E, F#, and then it goes to Ab, and continues with the Ab major bebop scale, before connecting again with the G major bebop scale. Then, if you create a fretboard diagram with the notes of the two scales in different colors—G major in black and Ab major in red—you’ll see how they lay on the guitar, and you can come up with completely original chords, and all kinds of themes that are within those octaves

That’s how you derived the harmony for the entire piece?

Yes. This two-octave scale, repeated four times, becomes eight octaves—and this is what I call the Grand Spatial Set. The Grand Spatial Set will be as wide as the ranges of all the instruments used in a particular composition, so with Inner Constellation, you are dealing with nearly an eight-octave range, between the lowest bass note and the highest violin note. Every instrument has it’s own range, so I asked the musicians what the natural range of their instrument was— and where it could really go if they stretched it using advanced techniques—and I wrote music for them in those ranges. So, each instrument gets its own Spatial Set, which is a 12-note scale encompassing the range of the specific instrument. Each Spatial Set is extracted from the Grand Spatial Set.

What is a Tone Field?

Within a Grand Spatial Set there will be smaller harmonic devices—for example, exotic five- or six-note scales—embedded within the larger scale almost like strands of DNA, which can be used to improvise with or develop themes from. I refer to those subsets of the scale as a Tone Field.

Explain the concept of “counterpoint based on stratification.”

Instead of dealing with traditional counterpoint— for example, parallel motion—you can compose music for each instrument based on its particular range within, say, a Grand Spatial Set. The instruments have their own horizontal dimension, just through the line that they are playing—but the multiple-octave space that’s between those instruments provides the vertical aspect of the counterpoint, and that may be visualized as layers or strata, much like the layers of stratification you would see in the Grand Canyon. Counterpoint based on that concept helps maintain a clear delineation between the instruments, so that they don’t get in each other’s way. The resulting musical texture is a composite of separate contrasting layers of expressions, harmonies, rhythms, and tone colors.

Switching to Shadow Machine, was there an overall compositional concept at work in the pieces on that album?

Everything on that record was completely improvised. What you hear is what was played, and there were no punch-ins or edits.

The music reminds me of the music of early tape and electronic composers, such as Schaeffer and Stockhausen. What, if any, affinity do you feel to those composers.

Stockhausen was a major force. He was the kind of person that restructures a given musical vocabulary and comes up with something completely original, and that’s the kind of force that motivates and inspires me. Two examples within the jazz tradition would be Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman—but Jimi Hendrix did a similar thing coming out of a rhythm and blues tradition. I think he’s one of the greatest innovators in modern music, and I can’t imagine a single genre that hasn’t benefited from his work. He was a great guitar player, but it was also his sound, man. He’s probably my biggest influence as a guitar player.

Are you playing through a Leslie on “Home Again, For Now” from the Home Again album?

Yes, and the sound was a great inspiration. That Leslie had been in a church for about 30 years and it was in amazing working condition.

What techniques did you use to produce those really fast lines?

One technique that I like is a kind of fast tremolo, which Django used a lot, and that may be what you are referring to. I also play mandolin, and several years ago I discovered that by using that fast tremolo technique— not just on single-note lines, but also on chords—I could really move things around through the range of the guitar.

You have quite a bit of gear listed on your site. What are your principal instruments, amps, and pedals, or do you use all those things regularly?

I play in about ten different bands, and I use different gear with each one. My primary guitar is a Fender Custom Shop 1958 Stratocaster reissue made in 1997. I’ve played that guitar on all the records I’ve done up to this point, though I also played a Gibson L5 on the last three tracks of Inner Constellation. In one band I play a Gibson ’59 Les Paul Standard Historic reissue, there’s a ’63 Silvertone that I use for slide, and I’ve got several other Stratocasters that are set up for playing different sorts of music. My acoustics include a gorgeous Martin OM-28 Marquis, and an old Ibanez C300 that I use for more avant-garde stuff.

For amps, I typically use a Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb reissue and a Mesa/Boogie Mark IV in a stereo configuration. I plug into Analog Man Sun Face fuzz and Sun Lion fuzz/boost pedals, routed to a stereo Ernie Ball volume/pan pedal, which feeds the two amps. I’ve also got a few Fulltone pedals that I use fairly regularly, and an Electro- Harmonix 16-Second Digital Delay that I use with one band.

What strings and picks do you prefer?

I use a hybrid set—gauges .013, .015, .021, .032, .042, and .052—with an unwound G. And I use whatever brand is available. I play with the red Dunlop Jazz III picks.

Do you ever use your right-hand fingers when playing electric?

Sometimes when I’m playing with a slide I’ll use my fingers to get that particular sound, but I don’t tap with my right-hand or anything like that. I prefer the sound and attack of a pick, because it provides a propulsive, forward motion.

Do you employ any open or alternate tunings?

I have explored a variety of tunings, but I don’t recall any of them offhand. I did use some alternate tunings on an acoustic guitar when I recorded an album called Keep the Meter Running with bassist Tony Wren and percussionist Stephen Flinn.

Do you ever use “prepared” guitar?

No. For me the guitar doesn’t need to be prepared because it’s already a thing of beauty. I’m the one that has to be prepared, because the instrument just kicks my ass.

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