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Either/Orchestra Handles All Tough Turns of Jazz Road

By Published: October 27, 2003

I think our music is deeply immersed in the jazz tradition and extending it in many directions without losing a feel for it. —Russ Gershon

Saxophonist Russ Gershon is on the horns of a dilemma with his sparkling band, the Either/Orchestra, the rock-solid 10-piece organization that churns out all kinds of music. The surprising sounds are steeped in jazz, but like a Luis Tiant pitch, the thunder the band emits can come from just about any angle. Critics have loved them. Yet gigs aren’t as plentiful as they should be for such a stellar group. Gershon – who’s tired, in a way, of winning Downbeat magazine’s “talent deserving wider recognition” award which the band has consistently garnered – feels it’s time for the band to step into the limelight.

The latest recording, Neo-Modernism , shows the band can step into the ring with anyone. While the last album, Afro-Cubism, had a Latin touch and the one before that, More Beautiful Than Death, had influences from Ethiopian music, the new disc has a deep jazz groove, with nods to folks in the jazz pantheon like Monk, Coltrane, Sun Ra and Miles.

“This album in a way is my own personal pantheon of jazz masters,” says the 44-year-old Gershon. “This is a little bit more of a jazz album. The neo-modernism concept is... we’ve been hearing the term neo-classicism and neo-traditionalism for years, so I figured I’d just put a little twist on that.”

“My notion here is to go back to the inspirational figures and try to visit them in a way that’s not imitating them, but trying to find something in the track of what was inspiring about them and how they must have felt at moments when they were discovering things. That’s one of the reasons I came up with these kind of mutant combinations. To see if we can kind of blow up the chemistry set.”

That’s the kind of approach the Either/Orchestra has had since the Boston-based group was formed in 1985.

“When we play for people who haven’t heard us play before, their jaws drop. ‘Oh my god, what a great band.’ I feel like the goods are there, but we need to get some more celebrity status or some kind of star thing,” says the bandleader. “Become trendy in some way or something. I feel like if we can get this thing in front of more people, we’ll have a bigger audience. The audiences we get in front of really go for it.

"There's a confusion between 'big band,' meaning 'large ensemble,' and 'big band,' meaning 'nostalgia music from the 30s and 40s.' It's a natural confusion because it's the same phrase. But while they overlap, they're really two completely different things. The 'big-band' as I use the term is a large group of players, playing any style of jazz, creating a range of textures, and containing a variety of soloists. This variety and range can make 'big band' a more interesting experience than a small jazz group to a lot of people."

That’s what the Either/Orchestra brings. The group, smaller than a traditional “big band” and larger than most working groups, is like a six-cylinder car, able to take turns easy, but with power; able to climb hills, and still get good mileage. Their music not only affects the listener, it can infect. And it’s a gig worth catching.

“The first time I ever turned on a radio under my own power I heard ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ And then the first time I ever went to a big rock concert was Sly and the Family Stone. The first time I ever went to a big jazz concert was Rahsaan and Pharaoh Sanders and Alice Coltrane. And I played classical music when I was a kid,” Gershon explains. “So I feel like I was formed on a bunch of different styles, different genres and different mindsets. I feel all of them. They’re all in my molecules. I would say that goes for the other guys in the band too. I think almost everybody in the band has had some experience like that. Everybody in the band seems to have been forged in popular music and in jazz and in classical music too. They don’t seem to be exclusionary types. And that’s the kind of musicians I look for, people who are open to getting inside of genres of music instead of defining themselves by what they won’t do.”

On the new CD, “Baby Invents Monk” comes from not only the famed pianist, but also saxophonist Steve Lacy’s take on that glorious songbook. “I realized the tune had something to do with Lacy’s version of Monk. Part of the tune was written by my son [Luca], who was one and a half at the time. He was sitting at a drum set and just played this phrase that was perfect. It sounded like a little Monk tune. People are always saying Monk tunes sound like nursery rhymes in some way. He played this little 8-bar phrase, and I was like, ‘Man, Don’t move.’ And I wrote it down. So there’s something in there about babies and grownups and influences and people emulating each other.”

“There’s a tune on the record called 'Los Olvidados,' which is inspired by Billy Harper and his compositions. I think he’s one of the great underrated players and a really great writer too. He’s kind of from that generation, that 70s Coltrane mainstream generation that kind of got wiped out by the New Lion generation. So I started thinking about Billy Harper and the way he was inspired by Coltrane and the way he took some of Coltrane’s ideas and gave them another spin. So that was my influence axis on there."

“The Modernist,” he says, “goes back and forth between two different textures. One of which reminds me of Wayne Shorter’s 60s tunes one reminds me of Mingus and the way Mingus would use an ensemble with a bunch of horns in it to create this gospel, church kind of buildup. It was another pair of people who are influences on me. A dialog between my elders, so to speak.”

“Heavily Amplified Hairpiece,” according to Gershon, has “real fat analog synthesizers like Sun Ra used to use. They’re used in that way, as an instrument to achieve further ‘outness’ rather than to further ‘inness’ the way a lot of people do these days to make smooth sounds. I started thinking about Miles and Sun Ra both in the 70s, both with electronics, these two kind of middle-aged guys trying to be cool. Miles being super cool and Sun Ra being cool by being uncool. The different way they were incorporating electronics into their sounds. So that composition is about this interplay between those two approaches.”

So what’s on Neo-Modernism is that different take on the masters. It’s array of recordings, all on Gershon’s own Accurate Records label, shows the Either/Orchestra doesn’t plan on staying in one place.

“One way to put a stamp on your musical persona quickly is to put a wall around it and say, ‘We only do what’s here, inside of this fence,’” he says. “Some people can wall off one square foot and work that one square foot beautifully, brilliantly, and find a whole universe inside of that. There’s nothing wrong with that if you can do it. But I feel like this is a lifetime journey, being a musician, and I don’t want to spend my whole time in one neighborhood. I like to keep traveling.

“I will say that at the core, I’m a jazz musician in the sense that improvisation and the primacy of instrumental soloing and instrumental acuity is really important to me in a way it isn’t to popular musicians or to classical musicians for that matter, where improvisation is really a deeply secondary thing, if it’s there at all. I’m very much a jazz musician, but the material I like to apply that process to comes from all over the place. That philosophy goes for a lot of people in the band.”

The Either/Orchestra continues to do gigs and hone its new material, but it isn’t easy, despite the critical success.

“It’s a little disheartening that it doesn’t get easier. You figure after 18 years and nine albums...,” he says. “After these feathers you put in your press kit, you think that somehow it would get a little easier, but it doesn’t really seem to... Sometimes I feel like, even though we’ve gotten tremendous respect from the press and even from radio and from the fans that know us, I still feel like we’re kind of overlooked in a way. I think we’re a band where almost everyone that has some interest in jazz has sort of heard of us, but when it really comes down to it, most dedicated jazz fans haven’t heard the Either Orchestra. We’re one of the names floating around the fringes of the landscape. It’s a little bit too egotistical to say we’re being taken for granted, but I feel like because we’ve never been on a major label or we’re not based in New York or because I didn’t do the route of being sideman to more established people, then start my own group. For whatever career-type reasons, or maybe because it’s an oddball name and sounds like a rock group or something else. Whatever the reasons are. Because I don’t think it’s the music.

“I think our music is deeply immersed in the jazz tradition and extending it in many directions without losing a feel for it. I don’t think it’s the music. I think it has more to do with these other factors. I feel like we’re overlooked a little bit.”

The group has toured in Europe, but with 10 pieces promoters there see it as too expensive, transportation-wise, and too difficult logistically, says Gershon. So tours in the United States have been easier because “we’ve managed to do it seat-of-the-pants here. Go out in a couple of vans. That’s been great.”

“For me, and most of the guys in the band, we see the road as not a rigorous place, but as a wonderful place. It’s the place where we get to go out and play our music and have our lives be a little simpler for the period of time we’re out there. Because when we’re at home, everybody’s playing lots of different kinds of gigs. Almost all of them are music teachers or they have some other job during the week. For us to come together in a room to rehearse or play is a gig – it takes time to get our energy together. When you’re on the road, you’ve got your mind on one thing together. So the music just falls into place beautifully. It just takes care of itself. I feel like if I can get the band playing gigs, all the musical problems solve themselves. If we’re not playing gigs, if we’re just rehearsing or playing sporadically, then you have to really work to fix problems or keep moving things forward. So I love the road.”

Gershon grew up in Westport, CT, first playing violin and piano before switching to sax. “As a tenor player, I’ve listened far and wide, so it’s the whole mainstream of tenor playing, from Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins. That’s the core of tenor playing. Beyond that, I love people like Clifford Jordan, Booker Ervin, Charlie Rouse, Billy Harper, that second tier of players that were very much influenced by Coltrane’s explorations and dealing with Sonny Rollins as a colossus. What do you do? How do you make your own voice with these giants standing there? I find that a very interesting process to observe in those players”

He moved to Cambridge, MA, to attend Harvard in 1977. He attained a degree in philosophy and worked as DJ, jazz director and station manager of the college radio station WHRB, where he produced jazz shows. He soon co-founded an eclectic rock band, the Decoders, which began playing clubs around Boston and in New York, and he later played in the power soul/punk band the Sex Execs. He attended Berklee College for three semesters in 1984-85, on December 17, 1985, the Either/Orchestra played its first show at the Cambridge Public Library.

In 1987, Gershon founded Accurate Records to put out the first E/O album, Dial "E" for Either/Orchestra.. The label has been essential to getting the band’s music out to the public, Gershon says, but the label also recorded other blossoming musicians on the Boston scene.

“It’s worked in a lot of different ways. I didn’t intend to do it, but I wound up documenting several generations of the creative jazz scene in Boston, which really wasn’t being documented before that. The record business is really in New York. People would come through here and spend anywhere from 10 minutes to four years for college and maybe another four or five years, a significant part of their career, and things weren’t being documented well. And people like myself end up staying here for 30 years or more. I was putting out our own records, and people started saying ‘how do you do that?’ One thing led to another and without it being planned, I wound up documenting some pretty interesting moments in the music scene here. Mostly through the musician connection more than, ‘Let’s make a business out of this connection.’ Although along the way, we’ve had a few things that have sold really well and made it worthwhile to be doing it.”

As the band developed, Gershon took cues from Duke Ellington, Sun Ra and Gil Evans. “I would say those are the big guys for me. For writers, Tad Dameron was a great writer for medium ensembles. The Birth of the Cool is hugely influential on me, not to mention a million other people, just in terms of the way a group can sound in that mid-range size, with six horns. Mingus is another guy who wrote brilliantly for that in-between size, a stampede of horns. Those are the writers that really did it for me.”

Says Gershon, “I can listen to jazz quartets play, but I’m a jazz guy. To a lot of people who don’t have the patience to hear head-solo-solo-head all night, a large group through the arrangements and the operatic aspect of having so many different characters who play and the different kind of textures we can get, give a feeling to people who don’t have the tolerance for standard-format jazz.”

The band hasn’t always cruised along smoothly. There were rough spots.

“The lowest time was in '97 when I disbanded the group for eight or nine months and really gave hard thought to whether I was going to put it back together. In the year or so before that, the chemistry wasn’t right with the band. It just seemed like it wasn’t moving forward in the right way. It is a labor of love and a lot of hard work. If you’re not getting the results, getting the right sound in the music, and in the interaction of the players on and off the bandstand, it becomes a little like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ So I was sort of feeling that. My son was born in late '96 and I was sort of overwhelmed with that.

“That was the low point. Coming out of that, I retooled with only four of the same people. I auditioned some people and got some people I’d been wanting to have for a while. Since then, the creativity and the chemistry have been great. It’s been great. It’s almost like there was the band before and the band after. Like Woody Herman’s First Herd and Second Herd,” he says with a chuckle. And the band has persevered, gaining fans and acclaim along the way.

It just needs more gigs, he acknowledges.

“If we had another 100 gigs per year and I didn’t have to do the booking, I’d be happy as a clam,” he laughs. “I’ve been so lucky. I’ve met so many great musicians and great guys, working for really short bread for how much effort they put in. It’s not time. I don’t ask for their time, just to rehearse and play. I do the backstage stuff. But I’ve gotten such incredible commitment out of people, I just wish there was a way I could pay them what they deserve. Sometimes they get paid well. Sometimes they don’t. It would be nice to pay them what they deserve for the incredible amount of talent that they bring to this music.”

“It’s been mostly great times. I think back to the early days of just discovering how to make a big noise with a bunch of people. The days when we were really starting to hit our stride when John Medeski was playing with us, a great guy and great musician. The days we started touring and what a gas that was and how much it did for the music. Great recording sessions. And of course there are a million hilarious and ridiculous things that happen when you’re traveling, especially with 10 people. You know how it is when you’re traveling with one or two people just for laughs. Try taking 10 people around, following an itinerary and doing some kind of organized activities, and then all hanging out and doing gigs. Pure arithmetic tells you a lot of ridiculous shit is going to happen, and that’s a big enough community of people where stories take on a life of their own within a half an hour. Anything good that happens is already being retold, making the rounds in the group. So there’s this mythology that gets generated. When I see old friends who are no longer in the band – people like Medeski or Matt Wilson – we reminisce about this stuff. It’s just hilarious. It’s a whole scrapbook of fun great things that happen, that in a way don’t have anything to do with music, but they’re a byproduct of spending all that time together.”

With many bands having trouble getting gigs, Gershon knows it’s not always going to be easy. But he believes in the band and its philosophy, and hopes that the appreciative audiences will grow.

“We’re swimming against the tide. We’re in a world where one or two people can simulate the sound of a large ensemble on a recording. Two or three people in a band can make a big sound. It’s not like 50 years ago or 60 years ago when to get a big sound you needed 15 people. The only reason you have 10 people together now is because there are certain subtleties and certain kinds of things. But it’s not essential for groups to have that many people. In a way we’re not economically positioned in a very smart way. That’s just reality and I understand that.”

Nonetheless, the Either/Orchestra has a remarkable track record documented by outstanding recordings. It’s time for the critical acclaim and audience acclaim to meet and explode.

Visit the Either/Orchestra on the web at .

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