Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

Either/Orchestra At the Peak of Their Power at the New School

Either/Orchestra’s long and remarkable career has taken them from a sort of punk jazz, through a latin jazz phase and then on to worldwide acclaim collaborating with the dean of Ethiopian jazz, Mulatu Astatke. While there’s been some turnover in the group, bandleader/saxophonist Russ Gershon has been a rock of consistency as far as strong, imaginative tunesmithing is concerned (their 1992 album The Calculus of Pleasure made our 1000 Best Albums of All Time list). Saturday at the New School, Gershon unveiled a suite of New York premieres recently commissioned by Chamber Music America: after all these years, this band’s creativity just gets more and more amazing. This had to be one of the two or three best New York concerts of the year.”We’re going to play this, and then we’re going to pass out,” Gershon joked about halfway through almost three hours of new compositions and some other tunes recently rescued from the archives in Ethiopia.

Gershon’s stock in trade is wit and sophistication. The new compositions and arrangements revealed an unexpected gravitas and lush, majestic power to rival or maybe surpass anything this band’s ever done, effortlessly and imaginatively bridging the gap between Cuba and Ethiopia. Either/Orchestra in its many incarnations has always had the sound of a big band twice their size (this version has ten players): the shifting textures and voicings of these new compositions are equal to anything Gil Evans ever came up with. Another strength of Gershon’s is how he writes to the strengths of his players: alto saxophonist Hailey Niswanger’s restless intensity, pianist Gilson Schachnik’s fluid melodicism, trombonist Joel Yennior’s febrile, cerebral expansiveness and drummer Pablo Bencid’s effortlessly spectacular facility for demanding polyrhythms.

Interestingly, the new suite, The Collected Unconscious – which was being recorded for broadcast on WBGO’s Jazz  Set early next year – incorporates several waltzes, from the unselfconsciously attractive, Beatlesque opening theme, to several bracing, acidic variations on Ethiopian riffs that occur later on (the whole thing runs about an hour and a half) along with a little straight-up swing and several richly noir segments. Yennior’s long, slow burn on the second segment, which elliptically mixed loping Ethiopian triplet rhythm with hints of Afro-Cubanisms, was one of dozens of highlights; Niswanger’s no-nonsense attack during a long Ethiopian vamp was another, with Gershon himself contributing casually climactic passages on tenor and soprano sax and joining Niswanger on flute on another. At one point, Bencid had one beat going with the hi-hat, another with the cowbell he had on a kick and a third which he used as the basis for a solo while not missing a beat with his magic left foot.

As the suite unwound, the group went deep into noir territory, took it back to Cuba with just drums and Vicente Lebron’s congas against slinky Rick McLaughlinbass and Schachnik’s piano. After a break, they unveiled three new versions of classic Ethiopian themes. As has been documented on NPR and elsewhere, Haile Selassie discovered western brass band music, but there was no such thing in Ethiopia, so he hired an Armenian immigrant, Nerses Nalbandian, who would become a sort of royal court music teacher and arranger. He also happened to be a fan of Afro-Cuban music: it was as if a proto Either/Orchestra had been born. Gershon’s new arrangements of these songs – which probably haven’t been performed since the early 70s, maybe earlier – utilized the same artful exchange of voices that’s always characterized his work. The most spectacular of the new ones, with charts by Yennior, was a stunning and hard-hitting example of the sheer number of permutations that an inspired arranger can pull out of one simple, eerie riff. After that, they treated the crowd to a rousing, lengthy, funky dedication to New Orleans, then the politically-fueled Town Hall Meeting, featuring a hilariously bellicose duel between trumpeter Tom Halter and baritone saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase. They closed with their new version of Auld Lang Syne, which of course bears virtually no resemblance to the original: Gershon took one of those gorgeously apprehensive Ethiopian riffs and expanded on it, interpolating a little Scotland to see if anybody might be paying attention. Ostensibly, that’s also scheduled for broadcast on BGO for New Year’s Eve. If this is what this group does with a commission, Chamber Music America might as well just make Either/Orchestra their house band.

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November 23, 2011 - Posted by | concert, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

9 Comments »

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful and positive review!

    I wanted to correct a few small errors – perhaps you can integrate these

    thanks again for the coverage,

    Russ Gershon

    Comment by Russ Gershon | November 29, 2011 | Reply

  2. PS. The new suite is called: The Collected Unconscious

    Comment by Russ Gershon | November 29, 2011 | Reply

  3. thanks Russ! As you probably figured out early on,was next to impossible to hear band intros or for that matter anything you said into the mic.

    Comment by the boss here | November 29, 2011 | Reply

    • Wow, I was so focused on the music that day that I didn’t realize the announcing mic was inaudible. I just thought it was my material…..

      Comment by Russ Gershon | November 29, 2011 | Reply

  4. [...] of the best concerts of 2011, wrote the blog lucidculture.wordpress.com. In Surround Sound on JazzSet. Horns L to R: Charlie Kohlhase, Hailey Niswanger, Russ Gershon, Joel [...]

    Pingback by WBGO Blog: Post view | February 17, 2012 | Reply

  5. [...] Lucid Culture blog called this one of the best New York concerts of 2011. We’ve had to fade, trim, even slash the suite to fit it into JazzSet, but you can hear [...]

    Pingback by Either/Orchestra On JazzSet | Hala Musique Music | February 18, 2012 | Reply

  6. [...] Lucid Culture blog called this one of a best New York concerts of 2011. We’ve had to fade, trim, even precipitate a unit to fit it into JazzSet, yet we can hear [...]

    Pingback by Either/Orchestra On JazzSet | EthioLeaks | February 18, 2012 | Reply

  7. [...] Lucid Culture blog called this one of a best New York concerts of 2011. We’ve had to fade, trim, even condense a apartment to fit it into JazzSet, though we can [...]

    Pingback by Either/Orchestra On JazzSet | EthioSun | February 18, 2012 | Reply

  8. [...] Lucid Culture blog called this one of the best New York concerts of 2011. We’ve had to fade, trim, even slash the suite to fit it into JazzSet, but you can hear [...]

    Pingback by Ethiopian News and Opinion Journal | October 19, 2012 | Reply


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