Russ Gershon: Time Traveler, Four Million Years Later
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.