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.