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Toronto-born jazz drummer to play at The Rex

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Harris Eisenstadt. EVAN EISENSTADT photo

A jazz drummer and composer who grew up in Toronto has been named a rising star in DownBeat magazine’s international 2016 critics poll.

Harris Eisenstadt has released 20 albums as a bandleader, and his recordings are consistently featured on annual best-of lists compiled by reviewers. He composes traditional and avant-garde jazz, as well as contemporary music. Some of his edgier music is fairly accessible, possibly because of the rock-music influence that runs through it.

Eisenstadt, 41, who’s now based in Brooklyn, N.Y., attended Leo Baeck Day School and Upper Canada College in Toronto before leaving Canada at 18 to go to university in the United States.

His first exposure to drums was through his father, David, who played for his own enjoyment. “I thought it was cool he had drums in the basement,” Eisenstadt said, adding that the groundwork for his interest in drumming was probably laid by watching his dad play.

As a teenager performing in rock bands, Eisenstadt  loved the music of groups like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and was influenced by the drumming style of Rush’s Neil Peart.

After high school, not yet under the spell of jazz, Eisenstadt became an English major and a music minor at Colby College in Maine. Attracted by the sports program, he hoped to become a walk-on player on the college’s hockey and baseball teams. But after returning from spring training in Florida, he quit. “I wanted to spend my time involved in music and in my courses,” he said.

At college, he replaced the drummer in a friend’s rock band as his friend “didn’t like what the drummer was doing,” but he found himself  losing interest  in the music and soon “became totally obsessed with jazz and jazz drummers,” he said.

“I was doing the proverbial eight hours every day of practice, completely consumed, and that was it. And it’s been like that ever since.”

For graduate school, he moved to Los Angeles to enrol in the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where he studied African drumming, began to compose and started playing the music of 20th-century composers.

“Most of the branches of my work ever since – essentially jazz, African and Diaspora drumming traditions, and then contemporary composition – it all kind of crystallized there,” he said.

At CalArts, he studied with Wadada Leo Smith, a legendary jazz trumpeter and composer, who gave him some career advice, encouraging him to “write your own music, lead your own groups.”

Eisenstadt said he doesn’t view himself as an A-type personality, but he likes “the challenge of managing a musical ensemble.”

His original compositions vary from traditional jazz and free jazz to contemporary music that employs classical techniques. He said he’s deeply indebted to the older generation of jazz composers and improvisers such as Anthony Braxton.

One reviewer described Eisenstadt’s latest release, Old Growth Forest, as “a gruff, visceral sound that harks back to the late ’70s/early ’80s free-jazz scene, with strong melodies that give way to wide-open playing.”

On the four CDs of Eisenstadt’s “Canada Day” series – the next Canada Day is coming out this year – the players sound more like a jazz band than on some of his other recordings.

“I always have placed a premium on lyricism and abstraction. In Canada Day, perhaps it leans toward lyricism,” he said.

Eisenstadt makes a rare appearance in Toronto at The Rex, 194 Queen St. W., on Feb. 8 and 9, 9:30 p.m. Eisenstadt with the band Old Growth Forest – Jeb Bishop on trombone, Tony Malaby on tenor sax and Jason Roebke on bass – will be performing new material. For more information, visit www.harriseisenstadt.com.