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.
Either/Orchestra’s first album in five years, Mood Music for Time Travellers, was worth the wait. Over the past several years, the deviously eclectic ten-piece ensemble have collaborated with pretty much every Ethiopian jazz legend, most famously Mulatu Astatke, of Broken Flowers fame. So it’s no surprise there’s plenty of Ethiopique to pique you here, but there’s also plenty of saxophonist/bandleader Russ Gershon’s latin vamps and signature wit. Much of this is cinematic, some of it is hypnotic, and the compositions, Gershon’s especially, are generous, giving his bandmates plenty of room to solo. As the title implies, there’s a frequent goodnaturedly satirical, psychedelic flavor to several of the songs.
The tongue-in-cheek but vivid period piece Coolocity evokes a David Lynchian Mulholland Drive of the mind circa 1958, balmy noir atmospherics over a warped clave beat and a big portentous riff leaping from the midst of a conga solo from Vicente Lebron. Thirty Five, by bassist Rick McLaughlin is a deliciously mysterious clinic in implied melody and foreshadowing, Gershon’s soprano sax supplying a sneaky snakecharmer vibe all the way through to a distantly mysterioso piano solo by Rafael Alcala. Alcala’s organ anchors the swaying funk of The Petrograd Revision, one of the more Ethiopian-tinged numbers with its circular theme, highlighted by Godwin Louis’ warm alto sax followed by Daniel Rosenthal’s cloudbursting trumpet.
Another first-rate, cinematic cut is Ropa Loca, blending the best of both the Ethiopian and latin influences, salsa piano emerging playfully behind fluid trumpet lines, Gershon adding an air of disquiet which sends the ensemble running around in pairs or trios – the arrangement is great fun. Trombonist Joel Yennior (who has a delightful trio album just out) contributes the percussively hypnotic Latin Dimensions and the gorgeously soul-infused Suriname, evoking Hugh Masekela with its circling central hook and sly, contented baritone sax from Kurtis Rivers. There’s also the playfully deadpan backbeat theme The (One Of a Kind) Shimmy that opens the album; Beaucoups Kookoo, the most Astatke-inflected number here; A Portrait of Lindsey Schust, a fond, vividly evocative homage, and McLaughlin’s richly arranged, suspensefully charged History Lesson that winds it up. It’s hard to believe that they’ve been around 25 years, albeit with some lineup changes as one famous jazz guy after another cycled through the band – they’ll be celebrating that milestone with another live album in 2011. You’ll see this one high on our Best Albums of 2010 list at the end of the year: it’s out now on Accurate Records. Watch this space for a NYC show coming in October.
Trombonist Joel Yennior is best known for his work with Either/Orchestra, but he’s also a composer and bandleader with an often deviously witty signature sound. His free jazz quartet Gypsy Schaeffer’s most recent album, from last year, was an absolute delight. So is his latest project, the Joel Yennior Trio’s debut cd, Big City Circus. And it’s more diverse than the wickedly playful improvisations that he excels at: his dark, pensive central suite here is just as compelling as the more upbeat compositions. This group has an interesting configuration: Yennior is joined here by Eric Hofbauer on guitar and Gary Feldman on drums: as a bassless outfit, the trio deftly switch around to provide a low-register pulse, whether the guitar is pedaling a chord or a low note on the beat, Yennior pulls his slide all the way out, or the drums rumble around. And it makes the arrangements interesting, particularly on Monk’s Gallop’s Gallop, Yennior and Hofbauer switching roles, Hofbauer doing subtly spot-on rhythm and bass at once during the first verse.
The genial original swing tune Dancing Dave sets a warmly melodic tone that remains throughout the album. Burt Bacharach’s A House Is Not a Home is a showcase for gently swaying, warmly tuneful upper-register work from Yennior as the guitar and drums swing tersely underneath. A shapeshifting Ran Blake ballad, Breakthru is closer to Gypsy Schaeffer’s unpredictable jams than anything else here, Hofbauer and Feldman prowling around, waiting for the moment when they all pull it together at the end.
Another original, Postcard to Dorothy is a vividly expressive, wistful jazz waltz. Yennior goes low and outside as Hofbauer solos gently up to a simple Coltrane-esque hook, some deft drum accents and then back. The centerpiece of the album is the practically sixteen-minute three-part suite Justice Lost, inspired by a dispiriting turn Yennior took as a jury member (it was a murder trial: they didn’t convict). They kick it off with a big, cynical intro, liberally quoting the Godfather theme, Feldman’s cymbals and eventually Hofbauer’s guitar chords resounding memorably beneath Yennior’s protesting trombone. The second part is a mournful Ellingtonian blues with some bitterly rustic muted playing by Yennior and a couple of pointedly ironic passages where guitar and trombone go off on completely different tracks but then lock back in a split second. It winds up with a staccato tango that hints at collapse, which it does after a bright solo by Yennior. Feldman gets marvelously suspenseful and whispery, trombone and guitar diverge further and further from any kind of resolution, and then it’s over. The album closes with a brightly tuneful, shuffling version of Estrellita, a Mexican pop song from the 1950s popularized by Charlie Parker. It’s a stealth candidate for best jazz album of 2010.
These guys are funny: Boston quartet Gypsy Schaeffer’s website bills them as “traditional straight ahead free jazz,” wisely giving themselves license to get away with pretty much anything they want. True to its title, this is a new album, but they could have called it “good album” or even “excellent album” and they wouldn’t be overstating it. Be aware that there’s nothing remotely gypsy about this band. Trombonist/bandleader Joel Yennior is a known commodity for his innovative work with Either/Orchestra; saxist Andy Voelker leads the aptly titled Wild Sextet, the house band at popular Boston-area hotspot Matt Murphy’s Pub in Brookline. Bassist Jef Charland and drummer/author Chris Punis make a rhythm section that just jumps out at you, Charland’s strikingly melodic, terse sensibility a good match for the alternately straight-ahead and colorful stylings of Punis, riding the traps and keeping the group’s adventurous excursions from going completely off the rails. Notwithstanding all their free jazz associations, this is an often stunningly melodic album. To the band’s further credit, it’s often utterly impossible to differentiate between composition and improvisation here: the jams sound composed, and even the catchiest passages tend to fly off the page in a split-second. It’s a brightly convivial, smartly cheery ride.
The cd’s opening cut builds off a characteristically simple, catchy, upbeat hook over Punis’ boogie-inflected beat, everything eventually flying apart and then coming together again. The second track, Live a Little is a showcase for chemistry and how well the band listen to each other, the rhythm stepping along but not gingerly as the horns go separate but equal to a sudden, quick, catchy chorus. Yennior gets confident and bluesy, then Voelker takes it further outside as Charland fans the flames with chords, Yennior bringing it back to the head while Voelker defiantly stands upwind and continues his diatribe.
The wonderfully titled Grape Soda and Pretzels, a Charland composition, testifies to one of the great snack combinations with a Penny Lane feel, bass soloing deftly and minimalistically off the melody, Yennior using all of his available range, almost like a trumpeter, as is his custom. Like many of the pieces here, this one segues into the next track with slowly pacing bass and drum accents, trombone, then pensive sax and suddenly the rhythm section goes on a roll. And now they’re in the next tune, Welcome Edison, warmly exploratory over balmy sax as Punis colors it and Charland anchors it with a pretty hook. There’s another segue, into Double Quartet with some strangely muted work from Yennior, a fanfare and echoes from Voelker.
The catchiness returns on the swing tune Shark Tank, boisterous trombone offering hints of the blues, contrasting nicely with a minimalist Charland solo and innumerable false endings as Punis thrashes around on the ground – and finally a gorgeous horn chart out of it. It’s unclear if the next track, Exuberant Irrationalism is a political statement, but it could be, a foghorn call on the trombone to open it, bass swinging purposeful and halfspeed over a shuffle beat, scurrying along to where Voelker goes off again and Yennior responds with insistent quarter notes, pulling it all back together. After a couple more segues into contemplative, conversational rubato-land, the cd wraps up with Identity Crisis, sax squeaking playful but ever-present in the background,Yennior carrying the melody over swinging bass while Punis alternates between clearing brush and standing back watching everybody to see how much they’ve been goofing off while he’s been working hard. If you’ve made it this far, you now know much fun this band has and hopefully have a picture of how much more interesting it would actually be to put this on the ipod and give it a listen.
Gypsy Schaeffer are more than generous with their music, offering all sorts of free bonus tracks at their site. With all the band members busy with other gigs, there’s nothing on their live calendar at the moment: watch this space for upcoming dates. Either/Orchestra plays Regattabar in Cambridge, MA on May 1.