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.
With their four-saxophone frontline, Dead Cat Bounce create the kind of music that sends toy soldiers sinking fast into a mug of hot chocolate – ok, that’s the most surreal of the cd booklet images, but it’s a good one. Their latest album Chance Episodes dispels any demons you can imagine. Who knew that a commission from Chamber Music America could yield such amusing and entertaining results? With their eclecticism, relentlessly droll, usually spot-on sense of humor and counterintuitive charts, the obvious comparison is the Microscopic Septet. When composer/bandleader Matt Steckler is in a more straight-ahead mood, some of the material here evokes the World Saxophone Quartet. But their sound is completely original and often absolutely delightful. The group also includes Jared Sims, Terry Goss and Charlie Kohlhase on saxes and other reeds along with Dave Ambrosio on bass and Bill Carbone on drums. As a Cuneiform Records band, they’re playing their label’s two-week extravaganza at the Stone on Nov 25 at 10 PM.
As you would expect from a band this irreverent, the song titles match the music. Take the opening track, Food Blogger: this guy is a madman! Steckler’s arrangements are meticulous, and pretty hilarious, all helter-skelter scurrying and big sarcastic crescendos with Goss gone OCD, Kohlhase (one of the great wits in jazz) climbing wryly and knowingly with his baritone before Steckler scurries and tiptoes on soprano sax.
Tourvan Confessional goes in an even more wry direction, its funky/bluesy charts lit up by cheery Kohlhase accents. A bright, bustling rush-hour scenario, Far From the Matty Crowd highlights Ambrosio’s hard-hitting, tuneful bass, Carbone’s out-of-nowhere bursts and then a completely unanticipated descent into hallucinatory quietness where Carbone once again gets to play ham and makes the most of it.
Likewise, Salon Sound Journal shifts from funky to swinging and then to an austere, semi-fugal wind ensemble passage. Bio Dyno Man – a mellow superhero who sounds like a Kohlhase creation – has Steckler’s soprano defiantly resisting any kind of resolution, an unexpected whirlwind with the whole ensemble and then Ambrosio matter-of-factly bringing back the slink. A cinematic mini-suite, Silent Movie, Russia 1995 morps from staggered march, to bolero, then to clave, with a laid-back Sims tenor solo with a playful Dexter Gordon quote. Watkins Glen – a racetrack, so those alto accents might be car horns – gives Ambrosio, who’s the secret star of this thing, a chance to air out his classical side, Steckler’s flute rising in contrast.
A blithely swaying, latin-inflected number, Salvation and Doubt evokes the western hemisphere of Either/Orchestra with Gil Evans-inflected swells and some deviously unfocused alto from Goss. There’s also Township Jive Revisited, a lively mbaqanga-flavored tune that eventually brings in a genially pulsing New Orleans vibe; Madame Bonsilene, contrasting astringent atonalities with Kohlhase’s solid, strolling underpinning; and Living the Dream, a funk song with a long, intricately joyous crescendo to take the album out on a high note.
Another cool thing about this record: the cd back cover includes credits for solos. That’s not an ego thing – it makes a lot easier for a listener to figure out who’s playing what, and how.
Rigorously cerebral yet imbued with a clever, carefree humor, this is an album that adventurous jazz fans will find as entertaining as it is cutting-edge. Recorded in 2007, it’s been out for awhile but since it just came over the transom here (thanks guys!) it made sense to give it a spin and, voila, it struck a nerve. Like his mentor Roswell Rudd, saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase pushes the envelope. The septet’s main shtick is that they have two drummers, Miki Matsuki and Chris Punis (whose mightily intelligent, straightforward playing anchors Gypsy Schaeffer’s excellent new cd, just reviewed here). Here, drums as often as not serve as a tonal rather than a rhythmic instrument, rhythm being passed around between Kohlhase’s and Matt Langley’s saxes, Jeff Galindo’s trombone, Eric Hofbauer’s guitar or to Jef Charland’s tastefully tuneful, understated bass. This is a concept album of sorts, playfully riffing on several comic book superhero themes. Superhero Beatdown starts out with starkly strummed guitar and multiple horn conversations, building up to the point where total bedlam ensues: the hero in question no doubt ends up in the emergency room. Then there’s Utensor, out to save the world with ovesize kitchen implements, moving from a satirical opening to a dialogue between logical bass and peeved tenor, the rest of the band eventually joining the argument as the drums rumble ominously underneath: could that be someone doing the dishes?
The Alarm Clock Is My Only Kryptonite will resonate wryly with anyone dreading the dawn of a workday, the pain of waking up vividly illustrated in five alternately tortuous and amusing minutes, trombone taking a completely ridiculous, laugh-out-loud funny muted solo over the band’s woozy atmospherics. The amusingly titled Thryllkyll on the Schuyllkyll kicks off with a faux detective theme, baritone sax climbing to a repetitive, Coltrane-esque riff eventually passed to the guitar while the band encircles it ever more tightly. There are also a couple of John Tchicai compositions written specifically for a two-drummer ensemble, the first a diverse exercise in call-and-response dialogues, the second featuring some mighty, somewhat martial ensemble work from the two drummers. The two most accessible cuts here are a tongue-in-cheek stab at a ballad by Charland and the strikingly straightforward James Brown homage that winds up the album. If you’re interested in where jazz is going, or where it’s going to be in ten years, this is for you, as well as for more mainstream listeners looking to broaden their sonic horizons. Don’t let the phrase “post-bop” scare you away – this stuff is fun. All the players here maintain active live schedules, watch this space for New York dates.