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Russ Gershon: Time Traveler, Four Million Years Later

By Published: February 21, 2011
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 band—that'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 band—certainly 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 impulse—to 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 musicians—the 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
John Medeski
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
Matt Wilson
Matt Wilson
was in the band—because he's such an incredible, swinging, pre- and post-bop drummer—we 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 stuff—mind 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 bass—we had a couple of tunes for two or even three bassists, which is very rare.

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