Here's to the wonders of recorded music and cultural exchange. Either/Orchestra leader Russ Gershon's encounter with the Blue Silver label's Ethiopian Groove album, a compilation of the seminal, brass-packed Ethiopian jazz/pop of the 1970s, led him to arrange some of its pieces as "The Ethiopian Suite. They were recorded by the E/O for the 1999 album More Beautiful Than Death and eventually were heard by some of the songs' composers, as well as Buda Musique label curator Francis Falceto.
That led to an invitation to play at the third Ethiopian Music Festival in Addis Ababaand the band's astonishing performances are now available to us on the monumental double-disc set Live in Addis. To complete the circle, the album's on Buda's Ethiopiques seriesthe same place where Ethiopian Groove has appeared as a reissuebut it's the first time a western group's interpretations of Ethiopian music have appeared there.
The music was recorded in concert on January 21, 2004, and this remarkable version of the group (pianist Greg Burk, drummer Harvey Wirht and saxman/flutist Henry Cook have since left the band) is captured perhaps at the very peak of its collective powers. The recording's not fancyBurk's piano's not terribly well-servedbut every instrument is completely distinct, and the band simply kills on polyrhythmic, grooving pieces like Girma Beyène's Middle Eastern-sounding "Muziqawi Silt and, for that matter, on Nersès Nalbandian's percussion-free composition "Eyèyè (the late Nalbandian did the arrangement, too).
Ethiopian percussionist Mulatu Astatqé guests on the second half of the concert, and it's hard to believe that percussionist Vicente Lebron, drummer Harvey B. Wirht, and Astatqé are doing all the batterie themselves; it sounds like more than three musicians are playing. (Various horn players add assorted hand percussion before Astatqé joins the ensemble.) Bassist Rick McLaughlin is perhaps the most valuable player here, as evidenced by his swinging, melodic line running through the contrapuntal horns and piano of "Antchim Endèléla (which also features co-writer/co-arranger Bahta Gèbrè-Heywit on vocals).
Mind you, this is horn-driven music, and the E/O horns dazzle throughoutfrom the slow-building, incrementally increasing massed ensembles that begin the astonishing group arrangement of Tèshomè Sissay's "Amlak Abét Abét to Gershon's keening soprano threading through the other horns on the Fender Rhodes-driven "Feqer Aydèlem Wèy. Trombonist Joel Yennior also plays some remarkable solo parts on both "Yèzèmed Yèbada and the aforementioned "Antchim Endèléla.
Several local guests besides Gèbrè-Heywit take the stage for a song during the set, and the most remarkable might be tenor player Gétatchèw Mèkurya, whose blurred pitch and physical, soulful melisma strongly recall Albert Ayler in particular, and the tonalities of free jazz in generalyet he arrived at his style completely independently of Ayler. (Ethiopiques 14, Gétatchèw Mèkurya: Négus of Ethiopian Sax, is highly recommended.)
Ultimately, the Either/Orchestra is a band, not a collection of soloists, and let's just say they come across as neither jet-lagged nor culture-shocked on these recordings. They sound bracingly energized and just plain tight. Live in Addis is the best live album of the yearin any genreand one of the E/O's finest albums. Heartily recommended.
Russ Gershon: tenor and soprano saxophone; Jeremy Udden: alto saxophone; Henry Cook:
baritone saxophone, flute; Joel Yennior: trombone; Tom Halter: trumpet; Colin Fisher:
trumpet: Greg Burk: piano, Fender Rhodes; Rick McLaughlin: bass; Harvey B. Wirht: drums;
Vicente Lebron: congas, percussion. With Mulatu Astotq
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