Either/Orchestra

In an extraordinary example of how musical compatibility can flourish unexpectedly and creative chemistry can explode instantly into something that inspires, delights and unites people across the globe, saxophonist-composer Russ Gershon says when he formed the Either/Orchestra almost 40 years ago, it was “as a rehearsal band, never expecting to tour and make records.”

Since then, the 10-piece ensemble – six horns, piano, bass, drums and congas, based in Somerville, Massachusetts – has played its singular sonic smorgasbord of big-band, swing, bop, avant-garde, electric, Latin and Ethiopian jazz across the world with a sophisticated eccentricity rivaled by few. While performing Gershon’s and other members’ originals and covering artists as diverse as Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Robert Fripp, E/O follows the collective-improvisation tradition of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Gil Evans and Sun Ra’s Arkestra while consistently surprising audiences with impressively innovative and irresistibly idiosyncratic arrangements – some staunchly reverent, others humorously irreverent – while serving as a career-launching extended workshop for up-and-coming musicians.

Gershon himself grew up in Weston, Connecticut, and started piano lessons at age seven, then took up saxophone as a teenager after seeing Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane play at Carnegie Hall. He graduated from Harvard, where he was a jazz DJ on the university’s WHRB-FM and a major fan of the Illinois Jacquet-led Harvard big band, then studied at Berklee College of Music before playing sax with Boston-based rockers the Decoders and post-punkers the Sex Execs in the early 1980s. Gershon has a master’s in music composition from Tufts, and has written music for orchestras including the Boston Pops.

E/O came together in autumn 1985, when Gershon invited some musicians to his home to play his latest compositions. Everything clicked immediately, and that December the group debuted at the Cambridge Public Library, then performed at regional venues including Sculler’s Jazz Club in Boston and the Regattabar in Cambridge before making several cross-country tours in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Because Gershon wanted to establish both camaraderie and a uniquely organic sound, he insisted the musicians travel together in vans to recreate the working conditions of both early big bands and indie-rock groups, and frequently booked E/O at “non-jazz” venues to foster a pop star-like audience awareness.

In 1987, he founded Accurate Records to record E/O, and the label has released 10 of their albums since plus LPs by Medeski Martin & Wood, Morphine, the Alloy Orchestra, the Ghost Train Orchestra and Josh Roseman, among others. Between 1987 and 1996, Accurate released E/O’s albums Dial “E”, Radium, The Half Life of Desire, The Calculus of Pleasure, The Brunt and Across the Omniverse. Gershon, Trumpeter Tom Halter and trombonist Russell Jewell appeared on each one, and saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase, a New Hampshire native nominated for a Grammy in 1992 for his arrangement of “Bennie Moten’s Weird Nightmare,” played on all but the first.

In 2000, after E/O took a hiatus in 1997 and had a busy road schedule in 1998/9, Accurate released their LP More Beautiful than Death, recorded at Fort Apache Studios in Cambridge with three new members: drummer Harvey Wirht from Surinam, percussionist Vicente Lebron from the Dominican Republic and bassist Rick McLaughlin, a New England Conservatory of Music graduate. Both the new additions and the release itself represented a distinctively international direction for the group, as it included arrangements of the 1970s Ethiopian pop songs “Amiak Abet Abet” by Teshome Sissay, “Musicawi Silt” by Girma Beyene, and “Feker Aydelmwey” by Ayalew Mesfin, which Gershon said he was inspired to record after listening to Ethiopian Groove: the Golden 70s, a 1994 compilation.

The album prompted French musicologist Francis Falceto – producer of the 30-CD series Éthiopiques, compilations of songs released by Amha Records, Kaifa Records and Phillips-Ethiopia in the ‘60s and ‘70s – to arrange for E/O to play at the Ethiopian Music Festival in Addis Ababa in 2004, the first American big band to appear in the country since Duke Ellington did so in 1973 and, with Indo-British singer Susheela Raman, the first non-Ethiopian artists to play at the festival. 

Their performance, which featured five Ethiopian guests including vibraphonist-percussionist Mulatu Astatke – a Berklee graduate known as “the father of Ethio-jazz” – was recorded and appeared in Falceto’s Ethiopíques series as Live in Addis. Since then, E/O has performed original arrangements of Ethiopian songs. and had an ongoing collaboration with Astatke and performed with Ethiopian krar player Minale Dagnew, masinko player Setegn Atanaw and renowned singers Hana Shenkute and Mahmoud Ahmed, the latter with whom E/O released a DVD, Ethiogroove: Mahmoud Ahmed and Either/Orchestra, in 2007. In 2008, E/O backed Ahmed and Ethiopian singer Alemayehu Eshete at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, and in 2010 they appeared with vocalist Teshome Mitiku at the Chicago Jazz Festival.

In 2002, the Australian label Hot Records issued E/O’s two-disc Afro-Cubism, split between their Latin- and Caribbean-influenced compositions and traditional jazz ones, followed by Accurate releasing 2003’s Neo-Modernism, recorded at Fort Apache, and Music for Time Travellers in 2010, when the group played their 25th-anniversary concert at the Regent Theatre in Arlington in December.

E/O musicians spend an average of roughly four years with the group, and there have been nearly fifty members to date, with Gershon and trumpeter Tom Halter being the only original ones remaining. Some former E/O musicians have become bandleaders and in-demand sidemen including saxophonists Miguel Zenón, Jaleel Shaw and Andrew D’Angelo, trombonists Josh Roseman and Curtis Hasselbring and drummer Matt Wilson, while keyboardist John Medeski formed “avant-groove” trio Medeski, Martin & Wood.

In addition to original compositions by Gershon and E/O musicians, some of the covers the group has included in its repertoire are ” Thelonious Monk’s “Nutty” and “Brilliant Corners,” Sonny Rollins’ “Doxy,” Miles Davis’ “Circle in the Round,” Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad,” “In a Sentimental Mood” and “Timon of Athens,” Roscoe Mitchell’s “Odwallah,” Ann Ronell’s “Willow Weep for Me,” Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Lady’s Blues,” Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” Robert Fripp’s “Red,” Lennon-McCartney’s “I Want You/She’s So Heavy,” George Harrison’s “Don’t Bother Me” and Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.”

E/O has won five Boston Music Awards and become a virtually annual placement in the Big Band category of the Down Beat International Critics Poll. In addition to playing in Ethiopia and doing over 1,000 shows across North America – including at the Monterey and Chicago Jazz Festivals and at Carnegie Hall – the ensemble has performed in the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Italy, Portugal, Russia and Uganda.

(by D.S. Monahan – July 2022)

Published on December 28, 2012

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