The Boston Phoenix
March 23 - 30, 2000

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Long story

The Either/Orchestra comes of age

by Jon Garelick

The Either/Orchestra 14-year history of the Either/Orchestra probably won't be surprised to discover that its most ambitious new work -- a modal jazz epic with complex time signatures that plays anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes in concert -- is adapted from an album called Ethiopian Groove: The Golden '70s. The E/Os have always drawn from disparate sources. In earlier years they not only played the usual Ellington chestnuts but also arranged jazz takes on Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" and King Crimson's "Red." What's more, they turned the pieces into real jazz. The whole universe of jazz and pop, it seemed, lived in the E/O book -- mainstream postbop legend Benny Golson alongside avant-garde pioneer Julius Hemphill, Dylan with Monk, '70s electric Miles with vintage Duke. At one show in the mid '80s, E/O leader Russ Gershon introduced an original piece as "a cross between `Africa Brass' and the theme from Mannix." Even the old chestnuts got surprisingly twisted arrangements. Eventually, the band copped a Grammy nomination for a piece that married ancient Benny Moten swing to Mingus '60s abstract expressionism.

The E/O's new More Beautiful Than Death (Accurate) comes four years after its last CD -- the longest break between releases in the group's history. In fact, after a marathon four-hour 10th-anniversary concert at the Somerville Theatre in 1995 and the subsequent release of the anniversary double-CD anthology Across the Omniverse, the E/O all but broke up. Key members had moved to New York City, and it had become harder and harder to rehearse and work as unit. In the meantime, Gershon's wife, Alessandra, had given birth to their son Luca.

So More Beautiful Than Death represents the E/O's rebirth. When Gershon decided to regroup, he held open auditions for the first time rather than relying on the jazz tradition of working from recommendations and connections -- with the result that several of the new members are in their early 20s (as Gershon likes to point out, three of them were in second grade when the E/O was founded, back in 1985). In its own way, though, this is the most diverse crew. Trumpeter Tom Halter played the first E/O gig at the Cambridge Public Library in December 1985; saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase (an important local bandleader in his own right) joined in 1987. In the "new" Either/Orchestra, Vincente Lebron, a middle-aged Dominican conguero, has become key to the band's new authority with Latin-based tunes, especially in conjunction with Surinam-born drummer Harvey Wirht. (Gershon calls Lebron and Wirht a "band within the band.")

In typical E/O fashion the material on More Beautiful Than Death stretches the band's identity while maintaining its coherence. The three sections of "The Ethiopian Suite," as Gershon calls it ("Thank you, Duke!" he says with a laugh), have been broken up -- one opening the album, one as a fulcrum midpoint, and one near the end. African, Latin, and funk grooves predominate throughout. Aside from the Ethiopian tunes (Ethiopian Groove was a gift to Gershon from his friend, the late Morphine leader Mark Sandman), there are none of the oddball "covers." The arrangement of the suite was arrived at collectively by the band in rehearsals, but whereas in the past other writers (trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and bassist Bob Nieske, in particular) have contributed, here everything else is a Gershon original.

"My original idea was no old music at all," Gershon explains at his Inman Square studio. "All new new new! But I scrapped that idea because I couldn't write fast enough. That black file cabinet over there is full of old music -- there's hundreds of charts. So I started selecting stuff that I thought would sound good for the new band, and also that we could play with a missing trombone part, because we have six horns now instead of seven. There are a lot of precisely written charts, like ones that I've done, or Curtis Hasselbring tunes and Nieske tunes. A lot of them are really carefully written, so that if you take away one trombone part, it screws up the whole balance. So we can't just randomly pick anything and do it without the second trombone."

What's remarkable is that despite the move toward groove and funk and a renewed emphasis on the rhythm section, the horn parts are as complex and beautifully poised as ever. Gershon still relies on the band's "little big band" heft, pitting swirling lines of reeds and brass against each other, setting off soloists with elegantly written background choruses, making the most of the possibilities in the Ethiopian tunes for twined counterlines. In some cases, old tunes like "Breaktime for Dougo" are revivals that are getting an authoritative second life.

"I wrote that in about 1989," says Gershon. "And because it's a real Latin tune, we were never really able to play it that well. I mean, we played it okay, but finally with this edition of the band we can do it for real. So that was one from the catalogue that found itself."

Even though this album leans toward that '90s buzzword "groove," the Either/Orchestra is still a jazz band. Dance or "groove" rhythms get orchestral embellishments that show off the strengths of the new soloists, and the pieces tend to push the 10-minute mark that favors the kind of narrative unfolding that's been a hallmark from the beginning. The long-lined minor-ish melody of "Number Three" rides on a springy bass ostinato (from a period in 1998 when the group was using two bassists) and is itself transformed as it leaves room for a solo by trombonist Joel Yennior that's by turns muscular and ruminative. At midpoint, the basses take off at top speed and Miguel Zennon builds an alto solo of increasing intensity; then the tune winds down to trombone for a restatement of the theme. The E/O used to create this kind of narrative trip with surprising, often tongue-in-cheek juxtapositions like Thelonious Monk's "Nutty" and Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe."

Of the album's more "traditional" numbers, the title tune is a lovely waltz-time piece with unison choral passages for horns and a repeated, catching stop-time tag. "All Those SOB's" ("provoked by all the people I've met in the music business who don't pay their bills," says Gershon) is a kind of swinging blues that harks back to Ellington and Basie, with Dan Kaufman's piano going from a Red Garland feel to Monkish out stride, and a strong trumpet solo from Tom Halter. But the highlight remains the Ethiopian "Amiak Abet Abet," with its opening full-horn-section melody followed by two long convoluted counterlines from muted brass accompanied by Lebron's clattering percussion. They're snaky lines with a cobra charmer's nasal-horn feel.

"On the original, that long melody line is sung by these two women in almost perfect unison, with these crazy-sounding, vibrating, nasal voices," explains Gershon. "They're singing words, but I have no idea what it's about. I've been meaning to go down to the Ethiopian restaurant in Central Square where the guy is really nice and ask if he minds listening."

If Gershon's attitude sounds more pop than ethnomusicologist "proper," that would only make sense. In the early '80s, after graduating from Harvard with a philosophy BA, he joined the local new-wave punk band the Sex Execs. "That was like my graduate job. People graduate, go to work for a consulting firm, and then go back for a graduate degree. The Sex Execs were my McKenzie and Company."

Gershon hadn't even played with the Harvard Jazz Band ("I couldn't have made that band at that point -- I couldn't read music well enough or play saxophone well enough"), but by '84 he was at Berklee, studying the core curriculum. And at a certain point, as his writing skills caught up with his ear, he felt the need to get a rehearsal band together to try his arrangements. "I don't have enough of an inner ear to spend years writing pieces and seeing them only on paper -- I want the instant gratification."

A Monday-night rehearsal band developed around a group of Berklee and New England Conservatory players, some of them quite a bit more experienced than Gershon. "You couldn't ask for a better way to learn how to write," he says, recalling the examples of Ellington and other bandleaders who enjoyed the luxury of having a working ensemble to test pieces on. Although he says the more experienced players were never "didactic" with him, "on a sort of musical/emotional level they showed me what was right and what was wrong."

The trial-and-error of a live band was invaluable. "You start by thinking of an idea and throwing it against the band, and then you adjust it just enough to make it sound right but still leave in most of the eccentricity. I think if you learn without hearing it, you're learning by the book, and you learn all the rules so that you can make it sound totally right from the beginning, but then you've short-circuited your eccentricity. Whereas I had this nice opportunity to figure out how to change it just enough so that it was listenable -- or at least some people would think it was marginally listenable -- and still leave in most of the weird stuff that they wouldn't let you do if you were at school."

In the early E/O gigs, Gershon also showed a flair for pop-marketing strategies, touting "Tevee Night," "Summer Fashion Preview," and "Bill Walton Night" with appropriate intermission features. In fact, the then Cambridge resident and Celtic star Walton surprised everyone by actually coming to "Bill Walton Night." And Gershon and his pals were serious enough jazzbos that they wanted to get the music right. They had the open ears and the sense of humor to hear connections between Monk and Bobbie Gentry, and the chops to play it straight.

The E/O appeared at punk headquarters like the Rat as well as jazz clubs like Ryles; it barnstormed the country on brutal tours, and on its way to a Grammy nomination it even got an admiring review from jazz-critic doyen Leonard Feather. Gershon now jokes that the E/O follows the Republican "big tent" model of inclusiveness. "I feel like there are certain poles in our musical universe that have to be respected: the Ellington/big-band pole, the free-jazz pole, the groove pole, any number of others. Even though we're leaning now toward the South American/African groove stuff, I think it's still important not to whittle ourselves down but to keep a wide net."

Gershon has watched the band's style shift with the personnel over the years, and the re-formation gave him a chance to determine the new sound from scratch. "I wanted that bigger rhythm-section-to-horn proportion when I reconfigured the band. I wanted to get groovier again, because I felt like we lost some of what we had in the '80s when we had a four-piece rhythm section with John Dirac playing guitar and Mike Rivard playing bass and Jerry Deupree on drums -- who were all a bit more groove-oriented. Then we switched to Matt Wilson and Bob Nieske, who were like a total jazz rhythm section -- jazz jazz jazz." It was music Gershon loved playing -- and he, Hasselbring, and Nieske had written some great, "compositional" charts. But when he brought the band back, he felt "we needed the pendulum to swing the other way," to the point that they even experimented with the two-bass idea.

The balance on the new album is remarkable, and no one is going to mistake the new Either/Orchestra for the Greyboy All-Stars. "Basically our sound is what it is, and we're not going to start sounding like an ABBA cover band, or even Deep Banana Blackout, whatever they sound like." What's more, from his years on the rock scene, and from his friendship with Sandman, Gershon knows what works with different audiences and how to keep a rock audience from fleeing: no "swing" jazz time ("ching-chinga-ding-chinga-ding"), no ballads with brushes, and, as Sandman told him (here Gershon drops to Sandman's flat baritone), "one solo per song."

Over its now close-to-15-year history, the Either/Orchestra has become its own little scene. "Stars" like John Medeski and Matt Wilson have passed through its ranks. Sandman was a regular visitor to gigs, even being featured on the E/O's version of the Bing Crosby vehicle "Temptation." (Gershon is currently touring with both the E/O and Orchestra Morphine.) The anniversary concert was a stunning array of local and, now, national jazz talent. Meanwhile, Gershon's record label, Accurate, released early albums by Medeski Martin & Wood and Morphine and more recently Asa Brebner's new CD and the late Caleb Sampson's soundtrack to Errol Morris's film Mr. Death.

And now, Gershon finds himself leading a band with at least two distinct generations. "You know, these young guys in the band, their skills and their command of the jazz language are so good for that age, and that's part of the Wynton Marsalis `young lions' jazz-education world they've grown up in. Whereas Charlie and Tom and me were more like stoners listening to records and thinking, `Wow, that's great music,' and then it slowly occurred to us, `I want to play that music' and having this burning, sort of revolutionary urge that eventually had to find a vehicle." It's a dichotomy that's led to interesting band discussions about music and politics -- the political importance of personal choices. In a way, Gershon says, the different elements of the band have influenced each other -- since it's always been the case that "I feel like the band should have people teaching each other what they're good at."

It will be interesting to see how this most heterogeneous of E/O collections -- generationally, musically, even ethnically -- unfolds over the next few years.

"It's a funny thing," says Gershon. "It's so hard to find anybody who can play in the band who is willing to commit to this crazy, eclectic, low-paying gig that involves touring and getting severely close to losing your day job -- if you have one -- when you go on the road. So I'm just really happy to find anybody that's the musician and person to do it."

The Either/Orchestra plays the Central Square VFW Post, 288B Green Street in Central Square, next Friday, March 31, at 9 and 11. Call 876-4600.

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