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Russ Gershon: Time Traveler, Four Million Years Later

By Published: February 21, 2011
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 is—the 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 anything—you 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 musicians—people 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 concert—it might have been [saxophonist] Julius Hemphill
Julius Hemphill
Julius Hemphill
1938 - 1995
sax, alto
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.

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