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Russ Gershon: Time Traveler, Four Million Years Later

Ian Patterson By

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Almost any particular musical element that you could name to define jazz can also be found outside of jazz. [Jazz is] more an approach to what you can do with musical elements.
Twenty-five years is a long time in jazz. When saxophonist/composer/bandleader Russ Gershon founded the Either/Orchestra back in 1985, trumpeter Miles Davis was on the crest of his jazz/funk comeback wave, and the so-called Young Lions movement fronted by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was coming into prominence, just as Weather Report—the last of the great '70s fusion bands—was coming to an end. In those days, the orchestras of Cab Calloway, Buddy Rich and Sun Ra were still touring, and you could also see Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz, Jackie McLean and Stephane Grappelli in concert. A quarter of century is a long time ago, any way you look at it. It's hard to recall how the world then got by without mobile phones, laptops and Wi-Fi—strange, too, to think that people had cassette players in their cars. It was a different world then; AIDS and global warming were barely on most peoples' radars, and the Berlin Wall was the maximum representation of the political and ideological divide in the long-running Kafkaesque soap opera called the Cold War. When the Either/Orchestra played its first gig in Cambridge Public Library in December 1985, Gershon set in motion an adventure that, so far, has produced 12 albums with some of the most original and arresting large-ensemble jazz of the modern era.

Through tough times and even tougher times, Gershon has steered his orchestra across America, to Europe and the African continent, earning widespread critical praise along the way. The Either/Orchestra's spectacular infusion of Ethiopian music into its own has characterized the band's music for much of the last decade, but the 25th anniversary of the band sees its return to more American-influenced jazz on Mood Music for Time Travelers (Accurate Records, 2010).

The African, art-rock, World, Latin American and swing influences that have colored the Either/ Orchestra's music over the years are in many ways a reflection of the tides of jazz history these last two-and-a-half decades, but for Gershon, it all began four million years ago.

All About Jazz: In the liner notes to Mood Music for Time Travelers, you describe the music as a return to American music after years involved with Ethiopian music. However, music of the Americas might be a more apt description, given the importance of Latin rhythms in your music.

Russ Gershon: Yes, many of our high-profile shows in the last few years have been with our Ethiopian collaborators, so our public image has emphasized that aspect of the repertoire, and of course there was the Ethiopiques record in 2005. The slow Latinization of the band has been a little bit under wraps, although the Ethiopian record had a lot of Latin influences, so it's all there if you listen for it. With the new album, it's a little bit more explicit, I would say.

AAJ: In spite of a return to the Latin influence, you can't quite get away from the African and specifically Ethiopian influence on Mood Music for Time Travelers.

RG: There's one tune, [bassist] Rick McLaughlin's "Thirty Five," which is the most explicitly Ethiopian because he's using an Ethiopian scale called anchi hoye—the most knotty and interesting Ethiopian mode there is, for our jazz ears anyway. Rick worked hard to figure out how to frame anchi hoye in terms of jazz harmonies and chord changes. In Ethiopian music, the whole song, or at least the melody, will remain in a single scale: five notes, and simple diatonic chords perhaps. Rick expanded the mode in a way that it has chromatic chord changes, so that was a real experiment. On the rest of the record, the Ethiopian influence is more subtle; it comes from having played Ethiopian music in the group for years and emerges in the way we think about music and the way I write music. We don't have to try anymore; sometimes I joke that, having played all these weird pentatonic scales for years, we can't even remember the notes of a major scale anymore.

AAJ: McLaughlin is a very solid, grooving bassist but he's obviously more than merely the bassist, as his two compositions on Mood Music for Time Travelers are particularly striking.

RG: Yes, that's right. I think it's been an interesting experience for Rick to be in this band. He auditioned in '97, one of the few times I did an open casting call for musicians. What first struck me about him was what a good soloist he was. He's a virtuoso player in terms of being able to play lines and being able to play high on the instrument. He plays melody very well and knows the heads to lots of jazz tunes. Ironically, he came into the band just when we were delving into ostinatos [laughs] and more repetitive music. So I hired a virtuoso player and made him play vamps for ten minutes at a stretch. I think it was just the ticket for him; it helped him to calm his playing down and learn repetition in the nuanced, interesting way that's in a lot of African-based music or even minimalist modern classical music and absolutely in pop. There's certainly a lot of repetition in music today, and the challenge is to make it interesting. He's taken up that challenge, and he's become a real anchor for the band. He has to be, especially when working with drummers and percussionists who are subdividing and playing rhythms over rhythms and making it polyrhythmically complicated all around the ostinato.


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