August 21, 2007
by J Hunter
You have to keep your head up, because sometimes little gifts get thrown your way. Last year's present was Jim Snidero playing in the intimate space that is Justin's; this year's surprise is Either/Orchestra, a 10-man Bop-Meets-World phenomenon that was only contained by Prospect Park's 8pm curfew. Even so, E/O's encore Retrograde Perversion went well over that time. We'll all get arrested and spend the night in jail together, group founder Russ Gershon declared, to enthusiastic cheers.
The Boston-based unit has been taking the Big Band format to dizzying heights for nearly twenty years, buoyed by an iron-clad commitment to stretching the envelope. Their alumni roll includes John Medeski, Matt Wilson and Charlie Kohlhase, and the group's current roster is well up to that creative standard: Most are products of either Berklee or New England Conservatory, with résumé points that range from Cab Calloway and Dave Leibman to Danilo Perez and John Zorn. Either/Orchestra got a tumultuous reaction when they played Sanctuary for Independent Media last year (That was an A-plus audience, Gershon enthused); the Sanctuary co-sponsored this week's free concert, and the crowd that overflowed the tent-covered stage area was dotted with people who had attended the previous show.
The band arrived late, so the soundman was still doing mic checks when E/O was introduced. After each player ran through a quick progression to check monitor levels, Gershon leaned into his microphone and deadpanned, Thank you and good night. The crowd laughed as the band eased into History Lesson, a delightfully expansive tune that introduced the crowd to Gershon's smoky tenor, Rafael Alcala' sharp-edged piano, and the slick trumpet of Tom Halter, Either/Orchestra's only other original member. Halter's sound was in direct contrast to Dan Rosenthal, whose trumpet has a raw Freddie Hubbard tone; Halter differentiated himself even more during a call-and-answer section on The One of-a-Kind Shimmy by using a plunger mute to make his contributions more Old School.
History was written by bassist Rick McLaughlin, who just received a Master's in jazz from NEC. Let's have a hand for higher education, Gershon urged the audience. As the crowd acknowledged the bespectacled bassman, Gershon told him, Fame and fortune will follow
but at a respectful distance. Gershon was quick of wit throughout the 90-minute set: When he was told before Shimmy that the minimalist lighting situation wasn't going to get much better, Gershon cracked, We'll just have to guess about some of these notes. Hey, he got results: Two minutes into the tune, someone was duct-taping a sun gun to the Stage Right amplifier.
For all his humor, Gershon kept the group on track through compositions that were always challenging, and sometimes downright Byzantine - all of them with horn charts so tight, a flea couldn't fit between the notes. McLaughlin and baritone sax player Kurtis Rivers were apparently surprised in separate moments when Gershon prefaced a tune by announcing that (Rick/Kurtis) will be soloing. Whether this was an act or a regular occurrence, I couldn't say. But if the intricacy of the arrangements wasn't enough to keep everyone on their toes, a potential wild-card solo spot sure would.
Not that anyone was slacking off; every performance was on the mark, every time. Trombonist Joel Yennior (who is also part of the dynamic quartet Gypsy Schaeffer) soloed with stunning control, taking aggressive lines on George Harrison's Don't Bother Me and the E/O classic Number Three without letting volume drain the color. Jeremy Udden's alto was light and sweet, mixing well with Gershon's tenor and Kurtis' bari. Conga player Vicente Lebron's new Spanish lyrics to Don't Bother Me pumped the Beatles classic up a notch, and he teamed with drummer Pablo Bencid to keep the foundation rich and interesting.
Again, the only problem Either/Orchestra couldn't solve was time. A curfew is more than an annoyance when you're watching a group whose musical ethic reflects John Coltrane's explanation for a long and detailed solo (It took that long to get it all in.) Be on the lookout for E/O's next visit, because if they're playing somewhere that will let them explore, it will be a lot more than a little gift.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.