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.”