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Russ Gershon: Time Traveler, Four Million Years Later

By Published: February 21, 2011
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 trip—a country that suffered a much worse colonial experience than Ethiopia. Uganda had been a British colony, and as I walked around—a conspicuously tall, pale-faced fellow—the 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
Illinois Jacquet
Illinois Jacquet
1922 - 2004
sax, tenor
. 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 rock—let alone jazz—there are even fewer gigs. Kids can't even get bar gigs. I always think back to the Beatles—their two or three years in Hamburg is when that band learned to play—five 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 days—for the Either/Orchestra and everybody in the business—you 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 different—to me, anyway.

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