Russ Gershon: Time Traveler, Four Million Years Later
“ Almost any particular musical element that you could name to define jazz can also be found outside of jazz. [Jazz is] more an approach to what you can do with musical elements. ”
Through tough times and even tougher times, Gershon has steered his orchestra across America, to Europe and the African continent, earning widespread critical praise along the way. The Either/Orchestra's spectacular infusion of Ethiopian music into its own has characterized the band's music for much of the last decade, but the 25th anniversary of the band sees its return to more American-influenced jazz on Mood Music for Time Travelers (Accurate Records, 2010).
The African, art-rock, World, Latin American and swing influences that have colored the Either/ Orchestra's music over the years are in many ways a reflection of the tides of jazz history these last two-and-a-half decades, but for Gershon, it all began four million years ago.
All About Jazz: In the liner notes to Mood Music for Time Travelers, you describe the music as a return to American music after years involved with Ethiopian music. However, music of the Americas might be a more apt description, given the importance of Latin rhythms in your music.
Russ Gershon: Yes, many of our high-profile shows in the last few years have been with our Ethiopian collaborators, so our public image has emphasized that aspect of the repertoire, and of course there was the Ethiopiques record in 2005. The slow Latinization of the band has been a little bit under wraps, although the Ethiopian record had a lot of Latin influences, so it's all there if you listen for it. With the new album, it's a little bit more explicit, I would say.
AAJ: In spite of a return to the Latin influence, you can't quite get away from the African and specifically Ethiopian influence on Mood Music for Time Travelers.
RG: There's one tune, [bassist] Rick McLaughlin's "Thirty Five," which is the most explicitly Ethiopian because he's using an Ethiopian scale called anchi hoyethe most knotty and interesting Ethiopian mode there is, for our jazz ears anyway. Rick worked hard to figure out how to frame anchi hoye in terms of jazz harmonies and chord changes. In Ethiopian music, the whole song, or at least the melody, will remain in a single scale: five notes, and simple diatonic chords perhaps. Rick expanded the mode in a way that it has chromatic chord changes, so that was a real experiment. On the rest of the record, the Ethiopian influence is more subtle; it comes from having played Ethiopian music in the group for years and emerges in the way we think about music and the way I write music. We don't have to try anymore; sometimes I joke that, having played all these weird pentatonic scales for years, we can't even remember the notes of a major scale anymore.
AAJ: McLaughlin is a very solid, grooving bassist but he's obviously more than merely the bassist, as his two compositions on Mood Music for Time Travelers are particularly striking.
RG: Yes, that's right. I think it's been an interesting experience for Rick to be in this band. He auditioned in '97, one of the few times I did an open casting call for musicians. What first struck me about him was what a good soloist he was. He's a virtuoso player in terms of being able to play lines and being able to play high on the instrument. He plays melody very well and knows the heads to lots of jazz tunes. Ironically, he came into the band just when we were delving into ostinatos [laughs] and more repetitive music. So I hired a virtuoso player and made him play vamps for ten minutes at a stretch. I think it was just the ticket for him; it helped him to calm his playing down and learn repetition in the nuanced, interesting way that's in a lot of African-based music or even minimalist modern classical music and absolutely in pop. There's certainly a lot of repetition in music today, and the challenge is to make it interesting. He's taken up that challenge, and he's become a real anchor for the band. He has to be, especially when working with drummers and percussionists who are subdividing and playing rhythms over rhythms and making it polyrhythmically complicated all around the ostinato.
AAJ: That repetition which you hear in [singers] Fela Kuti and James Brown seems to inspire you in "The Petrograd Revision," which is a cracking track.
RG: Sure, thank you. Some of my favorite music both for playing and listening to is the funk and soul music of the last 50 years. If you listen to Motown, the drumming is pretty simple, though perfectly done, with magnificent feel and fills that are just right. But the bass playing, James Jamerson in particular, is so varied and nuanced and yet still in the groove, hitting the right point in the vamps, playing counterpoint to the singer. Then [bassists] Bootsy Collins and Larry Graham take the whole thing the next step, and to me this all adds up to some of the major musical thinking of the last 50 years funk bass playing. Rick is appreciative of that, too. We have another band, a quintet, which is myself and the rhythm section of the Either/Orchestra and guitarist John Dirac, an early E/O member, and we play old soul and funk as instrumentals. So we spend a lot of time thinking about it. The art is to play bass lines that are melodically interesting and rhythmically varied yet support the groove. In my next life that's what I'll be doing: I'll be a funk bassist.
AAJ: You want to rid yourself of the responsibility of leading the bandthat's what you're saying, right?
RG: [laughs] That's right. I just want to stand back there and look cool.
AAJ: In the quarter-century history of the Either/Orchestra a lot of musicians have come through the bandcertainly too many to talk about in detail but this incarnation of the Either/Orchestra has a lot of members who've been there for some time: trumpeter Tom Halter since day one, trombonist Joel Yennior and Rick McLaughlin are both there 13 years or so, drummer Pablo Bencid and percussionist Vicente Lebron have been there for quite a few years each, and [saxophonist] Charlie Kohlhase 15 years or more. How important is this continuity, and, on the other hand, how important is it to have a little bit of a revolving door to bring fresh blood and fresh ideas in?
RG: That's very perceptive. Your ideal as a young musician was to find your guys, form a band and take over the world; the whole idea of changing members was outrageous. When I started this band, I really wasn't thinking that far ahead, but that was my natural impulseto find my musicians and become brothers. I was also practical enough to realize that every time you bring in a new member, you had to teach them the music, which is a lot of work. Within a couple of years, I realized that turnover was unavoidable and I had to turn it to my advantage and, if possible, make the changes upgrades. I have to admit, though, that in the first five years of the band, whenever anybody left it was traumatic; I felt like a girlfriend was abandoning me [laughs]. They would usually leave to go to New York and, yeah, it was very emotional for me in the beginning. As time has gone on, an incredible roster of musicians have come through the band, with, as you say, fresh ideas. But, you know, the ghosts of the former members are there anyway. I learned from them, and Tom [Halter] learned from them, and whoever was around learned from them. There's continuity to it all, in a funny way.
We're doing these 25th anniversary concerts; the one in December had 27 musiciansthe 10 members of the band, and the rest returning alumni. The concert in February will be about the same but with a slightly different cast. It was a really fantastic thing to be playing with this giant ensemble which had, for instance, three bass players, all from different stages of the band. The February concert is going to have all four of the long-lasting drummers. We had four keyboard players at the first gig. We'll have three at the second gig. [Keyboardist] John Medeski is going to be there, and he's three people by himself. We had five trombone players in the first concert; it was such a treat for me. During different phases of the band, there were certain styles played better than at other times because of the strengths of particular players. From '90 to '95, let's say, when [drummer] Matt Wilson was in the bandbecause he's such an incredible, swinging, pre- and post-bop drummerwe played a lot of music which both celebrated and dismantled swing and bop. Later on, we had [drummer] Harvey Wirht, who is from Suriname in South America. He's very African in his rhythms, and he coincided with the beginning of the Ethiopian era for us. At the anniversary concerts it is an embarrassment of riches to have all these people in one place, playing their best stuffmind boggling, really. And it's a beautiful reminder of how many people have given themselves to this band, devoted themselves and taught the rest of us what they can do and ways to play music. It's a gift.
AAJ: How did the 25th anniversary concert in December go?
RG: It was amazing; everyone was so happy to be there. A lot of people hadn't met each other before because they'd been in the band 20 years apart. There were people in and out of the band before one of our current members was even born, and everybody had fun playing together. There were four keyboard players; that many keyboard players generally don't play together, but they were having a blast. The same thing for the basswe had a couple of tunes for two or even three bassists, which is very rare.
AAJ: Yeah, you only get those combinations of multiple keyboardists and bassists with late '60s [trumpeter] Miles Davis or [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman or people like that.
RG: That's right. It takes a pretty bold approach to music to do something like that. Once when I saw Fela Kuti, he had two bassists. ...One of them made a mistake, and Fela shot him a pretty harsh glance. I had a moment during sound check for the December show, when I looked at the three bassists, Rick, [McLaughlin] Bob Nieske and John Turnerall fantastic musiciansand I shouted over to them: "I feel like Hugh Hefner"you know, the Playboy guy who always has five beautiful blond girls around him, more than anyone should be allowed. [Laughs.]
AAJ: You mentioned the band member who hadn't been born when the band started out, and you're obviously referring to saxophonist Hailey Niswanger. Nat Hentoff was so impressed with her that he wrote about her in one of his Jazz Times columns. How did she come to be in the Either/Orchestra, and what's your opinion of her?
RG: She joined in the fall of '09, so she's been in the band a little over a year. A friend of mine who's a publicist and radio promoter was working her record in the summer of '09, and he mentioned her to me. We happened to be looking for an alto player, as Godwin Louis was just about to head off to New Orleans to the Thelonious Monk Institute, a very selective graduate program. My friend sent me Hailey's quartet record and I was, like, "Wow!" I liked her style, her sound, and she was playing very passionately. She sounded like someone who had a statement to make. She auditioned, and she was the first and last audition in that round. She's technically accomplished and has good concentration. She's fun to hang out with, which is important because you're only playing together for two hours at a time, but when you're touring there's another 22 hours per day, so it's important to have people in the band whose company you enjoy.
She's yet another in an incredible line of incredible alto players who've passed through the band; Miguel Zenon Godwin Louis, Jaleel Shaw, Jeremy Udden, Andrew D'Angelo, Douglas Yates, Oscar Noriega, Robb Rawlingsthey're all amazing musicians. There are so many young musicians who can play their instrument these days because jazz pedagogy is much more widespread and advanced compared to 30 years ago when I was her age. Haileys's graduating from Berklee next summer. I guess you could say the alto chair of the E/O is the young-hot- shot chair.
AAJ: There are great musicians in the band now, and a lot of great musicians have passed through. Does the fact the Either/Orchestra has schooled so many good musicians who have then gone on to make a name for themselves give you great satisfaction?
RG: Absolutely, and the older I get the prouder I am of that aspect. I'm really proud of those that have gone on to do great things, and most of them say really nice things about their time in the Either/Orchestra. I think they've all learned something from being in the band. I feel like the group is more than just a band; it's like a community extending through space and time. I recently counted that there have been 48 musicians in the band over the years, not counting subs, with an average tenure of five years. That's a lot of commitment.
AAJ: It is, indeed. In the liner notes to Mood Music for Time Travelers, you note that the 25-year existence of the Either/Orchestra represents a quarter of the history of jazz, which is a striking thought. Do you think that the changes in the music of the Either/Orchestra, the changes in material and your approach to writing and arranging the music reflect the last 25 years of jazz?
RG: I would say so. Certainly it doesn't exist outside of the broader jazz community. A certain amount of it has to do with the evolution of what I want to do musically as well as with the taste and abilities of the players I work with. At the beginning of the band, the drummer Jerome Dupree and bassist Mike Rivard were very experienced with rock, fusion and art-rock, and they also played jazz too, so there's that source in the first rhythm section. In the late '80s, the mainstream of jazz had really turned away from electric jazzyou know, the [trumpeter,Wynton] Marsalis, neo-classical, Young-Lion movementso in a certain sense, we were very much swimming against the tide. The acoustic jazz elements which influenced us were [bassist,Charles] Mingus and [arranger]Gil Evans, as well as the inescapable, obvious influences of every decade, like Duke [Ellington] and Trane [John Coltrane], and the whole Miles [Davis] treeso much of the most influential music in jazz. Also, free jazz: Ornette [Coleman] and his descendants, and the AACM. We were trying to deal with all of these things, many of which were out of favor at that point because of the '80s reaction against freedom and fusion.
AAJ: You grew up in Connecticut and worked in New York, which was your stomping ground. Could you tell us about your experience of the jazz scene then, because if you believe the Ken Burns documentary "Jazz," you'd maybe get the impression that jazz died in the '70s.
RG: The whole idea that jazz died in the '70s is preposterous to me. It doesn't agree with the historical record. In fact, I remember when Newsweek had a "Jazz is back" cover story in the late '70s. I was born in '59 and got into jazz in '72 or '73, and the New York jazz scene then was so vital. You had the post-Coltrane wave going on, with people like [saxophonist] Billy Harper, [trumpeters] Hannibal Marvin Peterson and Woody Shaw, [pianist] McCoy Tyner, [saxophonist/flautist] Rahsaan Roland Kirkjust incrediblethe people who were coming out of the bebop tradition, influenced by Coltrane's advances, who could play their butts off on chord changes and were trying to move things forward. The players who were alive and working in the '70s represented every generation of jazz, from [drummer] "Papa" Jo Jones and [trumpeter] Doc Cheatham on down. You could hear the post-Miles electric thing, Herbie [Hancock] and his advances, early Return to Forever, Mahavishnu [Orchestra], Weather Report, and that was just the superstar layer.
Ornette [Coleman] reinvented himself in '75 and a whole scene came out of that, like [guitarist] James Blood Ulmer and [drummer] Ronald Shannon Jackson. That's not even touching [saxophonist/flautist] Sam Rivers and [jazz performance loft] Studio Rivbea, or the AACM people and the Black Art Group movement coming from the mid-west to New York, which they did in the '70s. There was such an influx of interesting talent. I saw [drummer] Steve Reid with [saxophonist] Charles Tyler. Then [saxophonist] Arthur Blythe came to New York and he played with Tyler. In New York, there were jazz lofts where I heard a lot of great music. The whole attitude was: jazz has to move forward and we are always finding new ways to approach it. There were many, incredible, fascinating, different ideas about jazz thenas there are now.
Jazz as music wasn't dying, though the clubs were. Jazz was continuing to be economically marginalized and becoming more of an art music and moving further away from being popular music. As a business entity, it was becoming more fragmented. Then there were the Young Lionsthe neo-classical wave which hit in the '80s. That's how art works: things move forward to the point of discomfort, and provoke classicist reactions. Then the front wave and the back wave sort of come together. Wynton [Marsalis] was a perfect figure for the jazz business at that point. His artistic inclinations and the ideology of his backers, like Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray, synced with Columbia records searching for a new star because they had parted ways with Miles [Davis]. Woody Shaw was going to be the guy and he had the music to back it up, but he had some personal issues and he wasn't a good manipulator of PR. Wynton was the perfect guy for the job. Many things, both good and bad, have been said about him, but he's a tremendous trumpet player, a brilliant fund raiser and educator and an effective figurehead, and my hat's off to him for all that. But artistically that's not where I was at in the '80s, despite loving a lot of the same older music that he does.
Coming back to your original question, our rhythm section changed at the end of the '80s, when Matt Wilson and Bob Nieske came in. They were a really swinging, really different rhythm section from Deupree and Rivard. We were lucky to have John Medeski playing keyboards and piano over that transition, because that dude can play anything. Because we could now swing on a world-class level, it pushed the writing more in that direction. Nieske, who had toured with [clarinetist/saxophonist] Jimmy Giuffre, wrote a lot of good music for the band at that point, and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring came into his own as a composer. We were evolving through another way of looking at jazz historydrawing a clear line between the past and future. This connected us in some way with [pianist/composer] Sun Ra's vision of how to swing avant-garde and play swing so that it sounds totally alive now.
Then in the late '90s we had [drummer]Harvey Whirt in the bandwho is from Suriname, the most African South American countryand he really brought an African 6/8, 12/8 feel to the band. [Saxophonist] Miguel Zenon joined the band at that time, with his developing vision of an almost [pianist, Lennie] Tristano-like, linear approach to Latin rhythms. It was '97, and a whole new generation of musicians came into the band, some of them 20 years younger than me. These were people who grew up post-Marsalis. They brought a whole different generational aesthetic, which in a way was less ideological than us older guys like myself, Charlie [Kohlhase] and Tom [Halter]. We grew up when jazz felt like a revolutionary art form. Just playing jazz in the '60s and '70s was a political statement. The next generation came up in the era of jazz education. This is part of Wynton's contribution; he helped make it a respectable thing to study in the academy, a credible career for middle-class kids.
The new young musicians, many with Master's degrees, brought something new to the band, and they were knowledgeable of some parts of the jazz tradition and open to learning about others. Then in '98, Dominican conguero Vicente Lebron joined us, and he brought a very earthy feel to the band and accentuated the Latino wave in our music. Pablo Bencid from Venezuela followed Harvey Wirht on the drums. Leo Blanco, a Venezuelan pianist who is not on any of our records, played in the band from '05 to '06, and now we have pianist Rafael Alcala, originally from Mexico. So yes, the course of the Either/Orchestra does reflect the history of jazz and the history of the United States.
Then there's the Ethiopian music. I'm certainly not the first to bring jazz methods to materials from outside the United States, but I liked that music, and clearly we're part of that trend. The Either/Orchestra really does reflect the history of jazz over the last 25 years. It's such a long time. Twenty-five years before we started was 1960, which seems so distant now.
AAJ: That's a great answer. As far as the Ethiopian music goes, what were the main challenges for you as a composer, as an arranger and as a band leader in bringing Ethiopian music to jazz and vice versa?
RG: Well, it was pretty easy to fit into our program, which was already notoriously wide ranging. I think the roots of my programming sense go back to when I was a radio disc jockey in high school, even before I started playing saxophone. I was used to putting together radio shows of seemingly unrelated music and drawing unexpected parallels and connections. I was always trying to craft intelligent sets of music. This continued through four years of college radio programming. So even when the band began and we were playing a rather eclectic range of music, it was still a narrower band of material than I had available as a DJ. For me, the Ethiopian music was another new flavor and one that I felt passionately about. It was a perfect fit for the members of the band at that time. They never felt that this music was outside of them, and a major reason for this is that a lot of the Ethiopian music we were dealing with had been hugely influenced by American music, jazz and pop and Latin music. Then if you take a step back and think, "Where do the elements of American music come from?" half of them at least come from Africa. So we're all swimming in the same pond, to some extent.
AAJ: What goes around comes around.
RG: Exactly. The influences have been bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic for hundreds of years, so it just felt like a really natural thing. The records that I tended to listen to usually had horn sections because there was a strong horn tradition in Ethiopia in the '60s. The essence of Ethiopian music lies in the melodies, and so that adapts very easily from vocal to instrumental music, or to horn- based music, and I spent a lot of time transcribing Ethiopian singing and figuring out how to write it for horns. It's been an ongoing, long-term project for us, because it's such a natural thing.
AAJ: The Either/Orchestra was the first American big band to play in Ethiopia since Duke Ellington played there in '73, and certainly the Either/Orchestra was the first jazz band to play Ethiopian tunes in Ethiopia. How were you received there?
RG: We were a little nervous because you don't want to be the white guys (or even foreign non-white guys) appropriating music from another culture, you know, that old story. But we came at the music with respect, and the reception was ecstatic. The people were intrigued and wanted to know if we had learned the music from Ethiopians. They were amazed. It was Ethiopian music with a Spanish- American accent. In our main concert, Japanese-Jewish-American Colin Fisher played a beautiful trumpet solo on a traditional Ethiopian song called "Bati," and a video of it wound up being posted on YouTube. I got an e-mail from an Ethiopian man living in the US, saying that Colin must be the reincarnation of an ancient Ethiopian musician.
In about 1999, the first four Ethiopian tunes we had recorded I forwarded to Francis Falceto, and he had circulated a CD of these four songs to some teachers and students he knew in Addis Ababa. Apparently, this disc become quite popular among musicians but it was unlabeled and nobody knew who it was. They were trying to figure out who was playing like that and the prevalent theory was that it was Ethiopians living in America. When we played a concert at the music school there, a lot of people in the audience who had heard that CD said, "This is the band!" It was a measure of success that we were able to lead musicians to think that we were probably Ethiopians living in America. Given that the human race evolved in Ethiopia, I guess you could say that we were Ethiopians living in America, four million years later. [Laughs.]
We also played Uganda on that tripa country that suffered a much worse colonial experience than Ethiopia. Uganda had been a British colony, and as I walked arounda conspicuously tall, pale-faced fellowthe vibe I was getting sometimes on the street was: "Uh-oh, this is another one of those British devils." I wouldn't say they were hostile, but certainly a little wary. (I should add that all of the people I met in the line of our concert were fabulously welcoming; I'm talking about city street vibe here.) Fortunately, the Ethiopians drew the inept Italians when the Europeans carved up Africa, so they were never fully colonized and didn't suffer the way a lot of Africans did. The people on the street in Addis Ababa were generally very curious about us, as if we had stepped out of a space ship.
AAJ: You studied at Harvard and played in a big band led by [saxophonist/bassoonist] Illinois Jacquet. How hands-on was his involvement, and what did you gain from that experience?
RG: When I went to Harvard, I was really a beginner on saxophone. I majored in philosophy. My musical activity was mostly being a disc jockey and playing in pop bands. Illinois Jacquet was brought in as an artist-in- residence a couple of years later after I graduated. He came up every two weeks, and we had a couple of days of rehearsal. He was very hands-on in the sense that he was rehearsing the band and picking the music. That was an incredible experience for me because I was probably the only member of the band who had Illinois Jacquet records in his collection. Illinois Jaquet was always a little outside of the jazz canon; he was somewhere between jazz and R&B, and very much a purveyor of jazz as entertainment. I loved that about him, because he was a survivor of an era when jazz was popular music. He'd go for the jugular. He played everything like it was the most important thing in the world and he wanted to touch somebody's heart with it. It was great to experience him. He was a colorful character with a great saxophone sound.
The way the big band was set up, we had the saxophones in the front row, and when he was rehearsing the band he'd be facing us, so I spent that time with Jacquet blowing an alto sax into my face from about two feet away, which most definitely changed my concept of saxophone sound. That's a big sound. But most of my musical performing experiences were during college in a rock band called the Barbarian Blues Band, which morphed into the Decoders. This would have been '79 through '82, which was the first crest of punk and New Wave. We started writing our own songs, and we were influenced by people like Elvis Costello and Talking Heads. The band I was in was very popular on campus, so we had a ready-made audience, and I had the great experience of my music connecting viscerally with an audience.
Fifty years ago, or 75 years ago for that matter, if you were learning to become a jazz musician, you learned through an apprentice system. You basically learned the instrument on the bandstand, at least at the advanced level of playing. There were more places to play, and jazz was closer to popular music in style. Pre-rock-and-roll people migrated more easily between their jazz and their pop gigs. Simultaneously, as the number of jazz gigs declined in the '60s and '70s, the rise of jazz education happened. These are not unrelated phenomena. A lot of the older players who didn't have the work used to started gravitating toward teaching in high schools and universities, so eventually jazz education has become a much bigger industry. There is tons of very good printed material now, and you can get a jazz degree in hundreds of colleges, Master's degrees, even doctorates.
But at the same time, the number of gigs has gone down, so people are learning their craft and art in recital halls, playing for their teachers, their parents and their peers. They're not playing for the public much, and inevitably that has affected the content of the music. It's a lot different playing in a bar where people are drinking, flirting, living. A bar crowd and a recital hall audience are going to demand different things from the players. I feel lucky because of my early days in rock bands, where I got a real taste for that populist thing where you're just playing to entertain people. I also did tours in places like Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, which are far from being hip, and I got my ass kicked every which way about what those people wanted to hear. How do you connect with an audience? What are the fundamental elements of music that people hear and feel? I am fortunate I got that education, and I worry about the young generation who are not going to have that experience, because even if you're playing pop or rocklet alone jazzthere are even fewer gigs. Kids can't even get bar gigs. I always think back to the Beatlestheir two or three years in Hamburg is when that band learned to playfive or six sets a night. It makes you musically resourceful; emotionally resourceful, too.
In the early E/O we used to do tours where we'd go on the road for three or four weeks, playing every night, mostly one-nighters, so we were driving a lot all over the U.S., playing gigs for whoever walked in or was curious enough to come out. This experience gave us a kind of connection with the big bands of bygone days and the territory bands. We became like a post-modern territory band in the '80s and '90s. Now we can't do that anymore, mostly because of where we are in our lives with family and kids. I can't drag the guys away for five weeks at a time. I couldn't go away for five weeks at a time unless the money was off the charts. We'll fly somewhere and play one gig in Italy, for example, which pays what three weeks on the road used to pay, which is great; who wouldn't want to get more money for working less? On the other hand, fewer shows can put the music in danger of becoming precious. Now it's about that one concert, but in the old daysfor the Either/Orchestra and everybody in the businessyou lived the music. You played every night and you felt freer to experiment, in a way. If what you tried didn't work, you got another shot at it the next night.
It used to be that most gigs weren't recorded, but now wherever you play someone's recording it, and probably with a pretty hi-fi system. If you make a mistake it's on the record. All those factors have made things feel a lot differentto me, anyway.
AAJ: You spent a semester at Harvard in '93/'94 as a teaching assistant on jazz history. If you had that position today, would you teach jazz history in any way differently, given the experience you have gained with the Either/Orchestra these last 25 years?
RG: That's a good question. My take, even then, was that I was a working jazz musician, so I brought some elements of that into the classroom. Now, 16, 17 years later, where has jazz gone? The whole jazz/World-music thing, of which the Either/Orchestra is an example, has really blossomed, and it's made me think a lot about what jazz isthe question that all of us jazz aficionados and players are always arguing about. The conclusion that I've come to is that jazz is a method of playing music. In the end, it's not even a sound or a style or particular set of musical materials. The swing feel is definitely a product of jazz, although there's lots of pop music that swings: the Beatles had swing songs, the Beach Boys had a lot of swing. There's plenty of stuff that swings that isn't exactly jazz. Almost any particular musical element that you could name to define jazz can also be found outside of jazz. It's more an approach of what you can do with musical elements. The improvisational approach, of course, although there's improvisation in other music, too. Almost every music outside of European concert music has some degree of improvisation.
Perhaps jazz has a greater range of improvisational parameters. In free jazz, you can improvise anythingyou can improvise notes, you can improvise harmonic progressions, you can improvise rhythms, you can improvise form. Different types of jazz deal with different parameters for improvisation, but I think all jazz requires of its players that, in the moment, they are able to change almost any element of the music, employing instrumental virtuosity to do so, and through an extensive knowledge of musical theory, whether it's an analytical or intuitive knowledge. It's almost like there's no such thing as jazz [laughs]. What there are, to me, are jazz musicianspeople who have learned the jazz method, probably by playing bebop, the highest classical form of jazz. But inevitably they have also played Latin music, or blues or soul or classical or any other music, and learned from that. The jazz musician takes his improvisational ability and applies it to almost any kind of musical material, and what he plays is then jazz, in the broadest sense. Albert Murray or Stanley Crouch would probably totally disagree with me about this.
AAJ: Crouch would probably punch you.
RG: [laughs} That's right. You know, Stanley Crouch used to be a drummer before he became a writer, and I was in New York in about '77, and I was at a jazz loft where they had some incredible concertit might have been [saxophonist] Julius Hemphill or somebody. I was sitting beside a Japanese aficionado who didn't speak English, and of course I didn't speak Japanese. He had a notebook of many shows he'd been going to in New York, and he was showing me the lists of all the different players. He'd been going to shows every night for months. He was a total maniac. He got to one where Stanley Crouch was on drums. I'd heard about Stanley Crouch, and I'd read some very interesting stuff he'd written in the Village Voice. I pointed to the names of the different people in the band, and the Japanese fellow was, like: "Oh, [saxophonist] David Murray, wow!" I get to Stanley Crouch and I point to his name and the guy goes: "Stanley Clouch! Ho ho ho ho ho!" That was his review of Stanley's drumming. [laughs] I'm not sure, but perhaps Stanley got out of the playing end of the business just in time.
AAJ: That's a funny story. Getting back to Mood Music for Time Travelers, it was recorded at various times between '07 and '10. Is this a reflection of your writing process, or is it a reflection on the difficulty of getting a dozen people, who all play in other bands, together at the same time?
RG: [laughs] It's more the latter, and also the difficulty of being understaffed. I wouldn't call myself a one-man operation, but I have most of the responsibility for all the administration and production. It is a big production to get ten people into the studio to record. If we had a record contract, a producer whom I trusted and somebody paying for it all, then I'm sure we would be producing a record a year, at least, because we have plenty of music we haven't recorded.
AAJ: You set up Accurate Records in the late '80s. How much satisfaction have you got from Accurate records as a parallel career to the Either/Orchestra?
RG: It's intrinsically very satisfying. I like the process of creating recordings, from concept to packaging. I have been in love with almost all Accurate releases at some point in the process, and I think they are good works which deserve to be heard. Almost like having a large ensemble, a record label is almost an archaic construct [laughs], and it's frustrating because you're bucking the tide of history in many ways. As a business, it's hardly a business. A business is what a businessman puts together in order to make money. What I do, I've done to get great music to listeners, to help artists focus their vision. Some of it has also made some money. [Laughs.] It's had its ups and downs, but as a body of work, mostly from people in Boston representing a couple of generations of musicians, I think it's great.
AAJ: What's coming up for you and the Either/Orchestra?
RG: We have the second 25th anniversary concert in New York on February 11 at Le Poisson Rouge, a modern multimedia venue in the same space that used to house the historic Village Gate. We played there in 1988, after our first tour. In March we have a couple of dates with Mahmoud Ahmed, the great Ethiopian singer whom we've worked on and off with for the last few years. We've been recording those gigs as we go, and if we do a good job on these shows we may have a whole live album in the can with him. In 2010 I got a commission from Chamber Music America to write some music for the Either/Orchestra, and it's nice to have that vote of confidence. Now I have to get busy and finish it! The music has explicitly Ethiopian influences in it. There's another big project in the works with another Ethiopian singer called Teshome Mitiku. We have a grant application in to fund us to write enough music for a full concert and premiere the music in Boston, New York, Washington and Addis Ababa. He hasn't been back home since he left the country in '70 at the point of a gun, so it'll be a big deal for him as an expatriate who was a big star there in the '60s to return 40 years later with ten pan-American sidekicks. I also have an album's worth of my original compositions done, and it's a question of finding the time to record them.
AAJ: Will you be recording the 25th anniversary concerts?
RG: Both concerts are being extensively documented on multitrack recording and also on video, too. After the first concert, I knew that we have something that's worth producing into a DVD or CD. The work just goes on and on. Looking back on it, so much is founded upon the human relationships. Everybody has enjoyed playing together and having an adventure together, and nobody ever wants to end that.
Either Orchestra, Mood Music for Time Travelers (Accurate Records, 2010)
Mahmoud Ahmed & Either/Orchestra, Ethiogroove (Buda Musique, 2007)
Either/Orchestra, Live in Addis (Buda Musique, 2005)
Either/Orchestra, Neo- Modernism (Accurate Records, 2004)
Either/Orchestra, Afro- Cubism (Accurate Records, 2002)
Either/Orchestra, More Beautiful than Death (Accurate Records, 2000)
Either/Orchestra, Across the Omniverse (Accurate Records, 1996)
Either/Orchestra, The Brunt (Accurate Records, 1994)
Either/Orchestra, The Calculus of Pleasure (Accurate Records, 1992)
Either/Orchestra, The Half-Life of Desire (Accurate Records, 1990)
Either/Orchestra, Radium (Accurate Records, 1988)
Either/Orchestra, Dial "E" for Either/Orchestra (Accurate Records, 1987)
Pages 1, 2, 6, 9: Courtesy of Russ Gershon
Pages 3: Eric Antoniou
Page 4: Phil Stiles