Either/Orchestra expands big band idea

For nearly two decades, the Boston band Either/Orchestra has been churning out innovative, distinctive big band music.

The 10-piece band prides itself on playing a broad range of material. At times, Either/Orchestra blows with the contemplation of John Coltrane, the eloquence of Duke Ellington and the spaced-out playfulness of Sun Ra. Still, Either/Orchestra has its own funky style fueled by fresh rhythms and impressive horn solos, especially band leader, composer and saxophonist Russ Gershon. Either/Orchestra’s latest album, More Beautiful than Death (Accurate) is an inspired, diverse jazz record that puts a new spin on the conventional big band approach.

The late Boston musician Mark Sandman of Morphine introduced Gershon to a collection of Ethiopian pop hits from the 1970s. Gershon and E/O arranged three of these popular Ethiopian tunes to form The Ethiopian Suite that is spread through More Beautiful than Death. Amiak Abet Abet opens the record with a 10-minute blowing session featuring the ensemble and a muted trumpet solo by Tom Halter.

On Musicawi Silt Charlie Kohlhas blows a smoking solo on baritone sax over intricate rhythms created by the impressive Dan Kaufman on piano and organ, Rick McLaughlin on bass, Harvey Wirht on drums and Vincente Lebron on percussion. Feker Aydelmwey has Gershon blowing an extended solo on soprano sax, and rhythmic horns and hand clamps give the song an energetic end. The Ethiopian Suite shows the Either/Orchestra’s talent of incorporating foreign sounds and styles and making them their own.

The remaining tracks, all written by Gershon, also reflect the breadth of Either/Orchestra’s influences and talents. The 10-minute title track ebbs and flows in a search for peace and inner tranquility. Gershon’s opening solo recalls a subdued Coltrane from his epic spiritual, A Love Supreme. Colin Fisher adds a contemplative solo on trumpet and Kohlhase adds another impressive solo to round out this stand-out track.

Things shift up-tempo for the Latin-tinged romp, Breaktime for Dougo. The fun-filled energetic chorus of horns jumps and pops around solos by Jaleel Shaw on alto sax, Kaufman on piano, and percussionists Wirht and Lebron (on congas this time). The track sweats with the energy of a Caribbean dance floor on a warm summer night.

All Those SOBs slows down to a straight blues, with emphatic solos by Halter and Kaufman. Slow Mambo for J.J. follows with a mid-tempo jam featuring Shaw’s soulful alto sax. The Eighth Wonder closes out the disc with Kaufman’s funky electric piano that recalls Herbie Hancock from the 1970s, and Gershon on a subdued solo. The ensemble horns soar and slide, then give way to Joel Yennior on trombone, who shucks and jives a fitting finale to this animated album.

Either/Orchestra eschews the typically cohesive big band arrangement in favor of a varied, diverse sound found on More Beautiful than Death. Either/Orchestra’s latest album keeps the listener tuned by giving each song a unique, individual sound. Each track is vastly different from the previous one. The styles bounce from Ethiopian pop, to Latin, to blues, to post-bop jazz. The 74-minute album gives ample time for each musician to explore his talents. The inspired orchestrations and solo performances on More Beautiful than Death prove that Either/Orchestra is one of the most innovative and talented big bands of today.

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