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Either/Orchestra Take a Respite From Ethiopian Sounds to Present Jazz Originals

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It's easy to take the Either/Orchestra for granted. The Boston 10-piece has been around for 25 years, putting out consistently excellent albums on its own Accurate imprint. But it's not an easy slog being in a band this size—it takes patience as well as a flair for scheduling, not to mention some creative accounting to keep the whole thing viable. It also takes a unique individual who is willing to play group parts, perhaps taking a solo only once or twice a night.

Because of these challenges, large outfits tend to have a bit of attrition, and E/O is no different, having such now-established players as drummer Matt Wilson and keyboardist John Medeski (of Medeski Martin and Wood) pass through the band before moving on to lead groups of their own. One thing that stays consistent is the steady leadership of saxophonist Russ Gershon.

“I think it would be hard to maintain a band like this in New York," Gershon points out. “There are too many opportunities for players of this talent down there. In Boston, there are fewer great gigs, so it's easier for me to keep a steady cast. Our band tends to be half people that have a family here and half people who are in school or just out who eventually plan to go to New York, but that's fine. It's kind of nice to have some turnover. It keeps things fresh."

The band now returns with 'Mood Music for Time Travelers,' featuring so-called American jazz tunes from Gershon and others in the band. This is a major shift from its last album, from 2005, which was a double live CD recorded in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with several Ethiopian stars as part of the much-heralded Éthiopiques series. After years of putting out creative large-combo jazz, the band has taken on a second life as something of a go-to group for Ethiopian legends who tour outside their homeland.

According to Gershon, “It started out as us covering some Ethiopian tunes as instrumentals because they work as jazz: They have these great weird modes. A lot of the old recordings have horn parts and a lot of it is in 6/8 or 3/4 time, and we love to play that stuff."

Once the band went to Ethiopia in 2004, it started collaborating with bandleaders like Mulatu Astatqé, Gétatchéw Mékurya and others, writing new arrangements and adding a level of musicianship the material hadn't had before (most active backing musicians in Ethiopia are not professional or schooled musicians). Then when these artists wanted to tour outside Ethiopia together, E/O became a neutral medium—they could play with everybody and learn the music fast.

“It certainly wasn't planned as a strategic development, but it's grown," Gershon says. “Who would have thought that becoming a backing band to musicians from one of the poorest countries in the world would be a second career for us? But if the music didn't work for us and we didn't enjoy playing it, then it wouldn't have happened."

Because the band was so busy with the Ethiopian guys in recent years, it accumulated a backlog of tunes, so some of the tunes from 'Mood Music' go back as far as 2004. Either/Orchestra's brand of jazz is a wide-open conceit that draws upon such diverse influences as Latin rhythms, Duke Ellington's elegant horn arrangements and Charles Mingus' playfulness as well as rock, funk and African music.

According to Gershon, “The interesting thing about getting so involved with the music of Africa is that the contrasts sort of remind you of who you are; what you are bringing to the table. The Ethiopians we work with are always impressed with the kinds of skills we have to get the kinds of sounds and feels that we get. It sort of reminds you of the similarities between jazz and Latin music, which can sometimes seem like very different rhythms. You can take it even further by looking at North and South American music. It's all African diaspora music, but then you play with musicians from Africa who are influenced by American music. They listened to soul and jazz and integrated it into their own sound. I see all these different parts fit together, but it also makes me appreciate them individually."

The band is something of a jigsaw puzzle itself, with a rhythm section that features a Venezuelan trap drummer, a Mexican pianist, a Dominican conga player and a bassist from Iowa. The horns, on the other hand, tend to come from the Northeastern United States. One thing that stays with this band regardless of the style it touches upon is that its playful sense of humor informs everything it does.

“I like a little musical wink along the way, and a lot of the guys in the band are pretty funny," Gershon points out. “A sense of humor seems to be one of the criteria for being in the band. When you are trying to get 10 people to fit together in one band, humor is an essential part of that. I'm not the first person to notice this, but when you are touring you play two hours a day, but you are together for the other 22. So when we play together we tend to have a collective twinkle in our eye."

This story appears courtesy of All About Jazz @ Spinner.
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