The 10 members of the Either/Orchestra ambled up on the stage at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy in front of a standing-room-only crowd on a glorious Sunday afternoon, and bandleader-saxophonist Russ Gershon counted off the opening number. A wheezy, wobbly, off-kilter melody emerged from the bandstand, and trombone player Joel Yennior suddenly stopped playing and snapped away from his microphone as a series of expressions crossed his face in a matter of seconds – shock, confusion and finally embarrassment. Slowly, the melody revealed itself to be “Happy Birthday” in honor of the trombonist-birthday boy. Got him again…
Obviously, the players in the Either/Orchestra have a sense of humor, which bubbled up again in all its satiric glory in the second half of the concert, especially during “Town Hall Meeting,” a wry kind of musical transcription of a political town hall meeting, which showcased trumpeter Tom Halter and baritone saxman Charlie Kohlhase duetting their way through a heated argument of intense but hilarious squawking and honking.
And their sense of humor reared its head once again during “Mambo No. 1,” the last of the Boston-based band’s triptych of tunes by the long neglected and nearly forgotten composer Nerses Nalbandian, who shaped modern Ethiopian music as the first musical director of the Haile Selassie National Theater during the ’50s and ’60s. The tune was as twisted and downright bizarre as you might expect from an Armenian composer writing a Latin mambo for an Ethiopian audience. And yet it remained undeniably swinging.
Lest you get the wrong opinion, the members of the Either/Orchestra are anything but musical goofballs. Some of the finest jazz musicians in the northeast, they embrace a wide variety of musical styles – Ethiopian, Afro-Cuban, jazz, Latin and funk, to name just a few – melding them all together into one roof-raising, little big band sound.
The showcase piece of their afternoon at the Sanctuary was the premiere of “The Collected Unconscious,” which opened the performance (after the “Happy Birthday” teaser). It was a sprawling new composition by Gershon, who described it as “a really long chunk of music.” And he wasn’t kidding.
Resonating throughout the eight-movement, 90-minute composition were echoes of Charles Mingus, Stan Kenton, Tito Puente, Frank Zappa and Sun Ra, as the complex, constantly shifting time signatures brought out slithering, seductive melodies one moment, slamming into a go-for-the-throat, post-modern Dixieland breakdown the next and then easing back down into a wistful, melancholy mood after that.
Traversing not only the musical, as well as the emotional spectrum, E/O deftly balanced precision, power and passion. The six-piece horn assault was rarely less than devastating. The multi-national rhythm section of pianist Gilson Schachnik, bassist Rick McLaughlin, drummer Pablo Bencid and conga player Vicente Lebron navigated the tricky time signature shifts with aplomb. and the solos – especially Gershon, trumpeter Dan Rosenthal and alto sax player Hailey Niswanger (who you may remember from her stunning, standing-ovation-inducing quartet debut at the Freihoffer Jazz Fest at SPAC in 2010) – were simply electrifying.
All in all, the piece may have simply been too much, too adventurous and simply too all-encompassing to absorb completely on initial listening. So I’m eagerly awaiting a recording. Or better yet, a return appearance by the Either/Orchestra.
Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk