Russ Gershon’s day job, the Either/Orchestra, officially hit drinking age a few years back. This can be difficult to believe. In the overall scope of modern jazz, Gershon and his big band are but a blip. But for almost a quarter century now, the man has been fostering friends and colleagues to reach their potential, not unlike Charles Mingus. And like true friends, these acquaintances of considerable talent will come right back around to rejoin the Either/Orchestra in the future. Skimming through the liner notes of Mood Music for Time Travellers gives one the idea that Russ Gershon is more than okay with this revolving-door arrangement.
And since the sound and/or mood of the Either/Orchestra can depend on who is or who is not present, each release is accompanied by the question of which version of Either/Orchestra you’ll get. If it’s anything like 2000’s More Beautiful than Death, you’re in for a meditative, plaintive treat in the vein of Gil Evans. If it’s modeled after most things in Either/Orchestra’s career after 2000, you may end up taking a trip to Africa, Ethiopia to be precise. If the Grammy-nominated The Calculus of Pleasure is the reference point, it’ll be pretty straightaway, with the covers and the originals being almost interchangeable. And so on — you get the point. So what does Mood Music for Time Travellers give us? I’m happy to report that it’s all over the place.
“The (One of a Kind) Shimmy” starts things with Gershon and co.’s sense of playfulness, a trait that has been closely associated with Either/Orchestra all the way back to its early days. Unapologetically retro, you can almost imagine baby boomers doing aquatic-themed dance moves to the slinky melody. Gerhson and his main man, trumpeter Tom Halter, revel in a friendly call-and-response, while the other horns are assigned places all over the scale, creating a texture you just don’t hear that often in big band music; this is hardly a surprise to E/O fans since this ensemble always took full advantage of their high horn count. “Beaucoups Kookoo” and “Coolicity” work a similar angle arrangement-wise, the former being a butt-shaking slice of Ellington and the latter a Jobim-inspired toe-tapper.
One of bassist Rick McLaughlin’s two compositions, “Thirty Five”, distills the Either/Orchestra’s recent excursions to Ethiopia into something impressively palatable for western ears. Having spent a great deal of the last decade on the African continent, fighting the good fight by bringing attention to Mulatu Astatke, they probably couldn’t help but absorb a few new tricks. A sighing saxophone line introduced by melancholic piano has probably never sounded quite so nakedly vulnerable as it does within the first minute of the piece, and it’s a bit surreal to think that this is a big band pulling it all off. It’s a feather in McLaughlin’s cap for composition and a strong indication of Either/Orchestra’s delicate attack. Getting such a large ensemble to blend so well is a skill not unlike landing an airplane: no one notices unless you make a mistake.
McLaughlin and trombonist Joel Yennior contribute two songs each to Mood Music for Time Travellers, and these can easily be considered high points. Russ Gershon composed the remaining numbers, making this one of the few Either/Orchestra releases to be comprised entirely of originals. In a way, it’s weird that the Either/Orchestra hasn’t flaunted this gift to this extent before. Sure, they’re humorous. And they can play, really well too. They are large, but tight. These are things that people have probably been saying since 1985. But the strength of a good chart can up the ante for anyone. The easy sway of Yennior’s “Suriname” can make a believer out of any skeptic, be they for or against big bands in a modern era.
Russ Gershon stormed out of Boston many years ago, intent on dismantling some jazz barriers we didn’t even know were there. All this time later, it’s almost refreshing to hear his mammoth ensemble take a leisurely stroll through time, albeit with a sense of focus. Is this the Orchestra’s most exploratory work? Likely not. Is it their best? I’ll leave that up to history. But as it stands right now, this is one of the better recordings to bear the Either/Orchestra name. And given how long that entity has been rolling, that’s certainly saying something.