Written by Becca Pulliam from WBGO-FM
A creative composer and his 10-piece band embed melodies from a golden musical age in the Horn of Africa into Western harmony, and an Afro-Caribbean breeze blows through it, as Russ Gershon and the Either/Orchestra present The Collected Unconscious in Tishman Auditorium at the New School in New York City, in Surround Sound on JazzSet.
Way back in the 1980s, tenor man Gershon dreamed of writing music in the Duke Ellington tradition for a band of Boston players, with a helping of Mingus’ blues-and-roots spirit. Toss in Gershon’s love of Gil Evans arrangements, and his Either/Orchestra was born. Then, in the ’90s, an album titled Ethiopian Groove: The Golden ’70s became an underground hit in Cambridge, where Gershon was living. Full of vintage organ sounds, wah-wah guitars and wailing voices, the album got Gershon thinking that those songs would make great jazz.
The influences run both ways. Spin the globe halfway around and turn back the clock a couple extra decades, and Ethiopian music had already absorbed some Western currents.
“Alemayehu Eshete, who’s a great singer from that period, always talks about how much he loves Elvis [Presley],” Gershon says. “And we recently did a project of music by Nerses Nalbandian [the Armenian maestro], who lived in Ethiopia. A lot of his music sounds like Latin music with a very Ethiopian flavor. I asked his son, ‘What did Nerses like to listen to?’ And he said, ‘Well, he was really into [Cuban-born bandleader] Xavier Cugat and also Ray Charles.'”
As basic materials, there are the tizeta or Ethiopian blues, sung along major and minor pentatonic scales or modes, and the “cheek cheek-a” rhythm of the azmari, the traditional wandering storytellers. These are coupled with the jazz musician’s urge to stretch and accompany the melodies and improvise on extended harmonies.
“I might take the intervals that you find in a mode, move them around, put them on different notes, turn them upside down — all this compositional stuff we Western musicians do — apply it to the Ethiopian material, but try not to lose the character,” Gershon says.
Drive the Afro-Caribbean clave rhythm through it, and what can you do but listen and dance?
The Lucid Culture blog called this one of the best New York concerts of 2011. We’ve had to fade, trim, even slash the suite to fit it into JazzSet, but you can hear “Mambo No. 1″ by Nalbandian as an extra.
The Collected Unconscious is made possible with support from Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Development program, funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
Surround Sound mix by Duke Markos.