Born: August 11, 1959 Primary Instrument: Sax, tenor
E/O founder/leader/saxophonist/composer Russ Gershon was born in New York on August 11, 1959 and grew up in Westport Connecticut. After studying violin and piano as a wee small lad, under the influence of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and John Coltrane he gravitated to saxophone at age 17. During summers, he worked for his grandfather Joe Leon in New York's Garment District, in close proximity to the record stores and concert venues of Manhattan.
Deeply influenced by the bounty of New York jazz scene of the 1970s (from Loft Jazz to the Village Vanguard to the swinging West End to Carnegie Hall), he moved to Cambridge Massachusetts to attend Harvard College in 1977. On his way to a degree in philosophy (thesis on Le Dejeuner sur la Herbe, a painting by Manet), Gershon worked as DJ, jazz director and station manager of Harvard's radio station WHRB, where he produced or broadcast regularly scheduled jazz shows along with end-of-semester radio Orgies such as 78 hours of AACM music, 127 hours of Bebop, 52 hours of Charles Mingus, 52 hours of Ornette Coleman, and many more.
Early rock bands...
Swept up in the punk revolution of the late 70s and the punk/funk fusion beginning at that time, Gershon co-founded an eclectic rock band, the Decoders, which started on campus but soon began playing clubs around Boston, CGBGs and the Mudd Club in New York, and went on an extremely low-budget tour of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in the summer of 1981 which gave the saxophonist a first taste of the touring which he would later continue with the Either/Orchestra. Guitarist Eric Pfeiffer later became the principal art director of Accurate Records, a label Gershon would found in 1987.
After graduation, the Decoders broke up and Gershon was quickly inducted into the Boston power pop/soul/punk band the Sex Execs in 1982. The Sex Execs included guitarist/saxophonist/double-visionary Sean Slade and bassist/producer Paul Kolderie, who have gone on to produce dozens of rock hits, including the recent God Bless the Go-Gos. Also aboard was harmonica wiz Jim Fitting (later of Treat Her Right and The The), drummer Jerome Deupree.
Around the same time, Gershon was fortunate to play in the Illinois Jacquet-led student big-band at Harvard that revived the swing giant's interest in leading a big-band. The group exposed the young musicians to a man who remembered when jazz WAS rock and roll, and it made a deep impression. The band included saxophonists Don Braden, Henry Cook and Gwen Delbaugh and trombonist Josh Roseman.
The hard-working Sex Execs had a pretty big local hit with My Ex after losing the WBCN Rumble to 'Til Tuesday in 1983, but broke up just as they released Sex Train b/w Strange Things in 1984.
Back to jazz...
Gershon took that as a cue to go to Berklee College for three semesters in 1984-85, where he thoroughly enjoyed the core curriculum of harmony, ear training, arranging, plus a great Mingus class taught by Ken Pullig (including students Mike Rivard, Kai Eckhardt and Christian Jacob), lessons with Bill Pierce and Andy McGee, and ensembles with such musicians as Donald Brown, Jim Odgren and Allan Chase. He also studied sporadically outside of school with Bob Mover, and later with Jerry Bergonzi.
In September of 1985, feeling like he was just getting the hang of writing notes on paper, and inspired by his favorite big-bands, the Sun Ra Arkestra and the Gil Evans Orchestra, Gershon decided to create a rehearsal band to try out some of his ideas. Gathering drummer Jerome Deupree (from the Decoders and Sex Execs), pianist Kenny Freundlich (from WHRB), saxophonists Steve Norton and Robb Rawlings (from Berklee), trumpeters Dan Drexler and Tom Halter, trombonists Josh Roseman (New England Conservatory) and Russell Jewell (Berklee), the Either/Orchestra began in the living room at 117 Columbia Street in Cambridge.
On December 17, 1985, the band played its first show, at the Cambridge Public Library, as booked by the late jazz lover Ken Williams. By early 86, the E/O was packing clubs around Cambridge; in 87, they played Sweet Basil in NY (filling in for the Gil Evans Orchestra), by late 88 they hit the road on their first tour to the Midwest. Along the way bassist Mike Rivard, guitarist John Dirac, pianist John Medeski , trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, saxophonists Douglas Yates and Charlie Kohlhase and trumpeter John Carlson had joined.
Founding Accurate Records...
In 1987, having seen the Sex Execs get the record-company runaround a few years earlier, Gershon founded Accurate Records to put out the first E/O album, Dial E for Either/Orchestra. The debut LP did well on radio around the country, and was followed by CD Radium in 1988. As the band began to tour and mature as a unit, in 1989 they went into Rudy van Gelder's famed studio in Englewood Cliffs New Jersey and recorded The Half-life of Desire, which went to #3 on the College Media Journal (CMJ) national jazz chart, powered by a guest vocal by Treat Her Right's Mark Sandman.
Also in 1989, saxophonist Henry Cook introduced Gershon to the Double Jazz Quartet, the top band in Boston's Roxbury jazz scene, led by ex-Jackie McLean trumpeter Billy Skinner, and featuring the legendary drummer Bobby Ward. Gershon decided to take the plunge into putting out other folks' music with the DJQ's debut Kosen Rufu. This was quickly followed by releases by a number of other worthy Boston jazz artists including Natraj, Dominique Eade, Ken Schaphorst, Jay Brandford and others, and Accurate was on its way to developing a national profile.
Marriage and the band goes on...
Gershon married painter Alessandra Mariano, of Gardone Riviera, Italy, in July 1990, which marriage lasted until 2003.
The Either/Orchestra continued to tour extensively in the early 1990s, recording The Calculus of Pleasure, which garnered Gershon a Grammy nomination for Best Arrangement of an Instrumental Composition, for his original composition Bennie Moten's Weird Nightmare, featuring the bass clarinet of Douglas Yates and the bass of Bob Nieske. The E/O recorded The Brunt in 1993 with a unit that included bassist John Turner, drummer Matt Wilson and saxoponist Andrew D'Angelo.
In 1993-4, Gershon spent a semester as a teaching assistant at Harvard, teaching jazz history under Professor Graeme Boone. Among the teaching assistants were saxophonist Salim Washington, with whom Gershon began playing two-tenor gigs. Washington also invited Gershon into his band the Roxbury Blues Aesthetic for a winter run at Cambrige's House of Blues. In 1995, Gershon served as Kayden Artist-in-Residence at Harvard, an honor which has also been bestowed on Bill Evans, Steve Lacy, JJ Johnson and other greats.
The E/O extended its territory into the South (1991) and the West Coast(1990, 92, 94), adding Europe in 1995 with appearances at the North Sea (Holland) and Pori (Finland) jazz festivals. December 17, 1995 featured a 10th Anniversary Concert, featuring almost all of the first decade's contributors, a massive gathering of talent at the Somerville Theater near Boston.
Fatherhood and the band almost doesn't go on...
1996 found the E/O staying close to home, as Gershon's wife Alessandra was pregnant with son Luca Mariano Gershon, born November 8, 1996. Gershon spent this time assembling Across the Omniverse, a two-CD set of leftover material from the E/O's first five albums which functions as a survey of the band's first decade.
During the first three quarters of 1997, the band was on hiatus for the first time in eleven years. In these months, Gershon reunited with 80s E/O rhythm section Deupree, Rivard and Dirac to form the instrumental rock/funk/jazz band Blasto, descended from a configuration known as the Neither/Norchestra in the days that Kenny Freundlich and then John Medeski played in it.
Gershon continued doing studio work during this period, often in a horn tandem with trumpeter Tom Halter, and joined Boston rock legend Willie Alexander's Persistence of Memory Orchestra. Starting in 1986, Gershon, Halter, Rivard and drummer J. Hilt had joined future Morphine frontman Mark Sandman's band Hypnosonics, a funky side project that became an underground favorite in Cambridge until Sandman's death onstage in Italy in 1999. Sandman also occasionally appeared with the E/O, include some memorable duets with Obie-winning (in 2001) New York singer/actress Judy Kuhn.
But the calls keep coming, and the New E/O is born...
Gig calls for the Either/Orchestra kept coming in, and by summer 97 Gershon started taking them, including concerts in Guimaraes Portugal, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and locally in Cambridge. For the first time, Gershon held open auditions for new members, and pulled in a talented group of young players including trumpeter Colin Fisher, pianist Dan Kaufman (later Gregory Burk), alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon (suceeded by Jaleel Shaw and then Jeremy Udden), trobonist Joel Yennior, bassists Atemu Aton and Rick McLaughlin and drummer Harvey Wirht.
Since then, the band has appeared in Italy, Portugal, and Russia, and released More Beautiful than Death, its seventh CD, after adding the amazing Domincan conguero Vicente Lebron, the first grandfather in the band! In 2001, Russ and the band were sorry say goodbye to 14-year veteran Charlie Kohlhase, whose own multiple bands (and jobs, including being the overnight voice of NPR station WBUR) make it impossible for him to fulfill the E/O schedule.
Over the years, Gershon has continued activities with Accurate Records, having released almost 100 titles by 2001, including the debut albums of Morphine, Medeski Martin & Wood, guitarist Garrison Fewell, the Alloy Orchestra, the Jazz Mandolin Project and others. He has also continued doing freelance jazz and rock gigs and session work for artists like Seks Bomba, Juliana Hatfield, Tanya Donnelly, Paved Country and others.
Ethiopia and Beyond
In 1997, the E/O began playing Ethiopian songs in jazzed up arrangement. The whole long story is told in the liner notes to Ethiopiques 20: Either/Orchestra Live in Addis (in English and French, no less), but in a nutshell, we travelled to Addis Ababa in January 2004 as the first American artists invited to perform in the Ethiopian Music Festival. The main concert included contributions by a number of notable Ethiopian guests, and was a smash. A recording of the show has been released as the aforementioned Live in Addis. The E/O also took the occasion to play a concert at the National Theatre of Uganda, in Kampala.
After returning from Ethiopia, the E/O faced a transition as drummer Harvey Wirht moved to NYC, and both pianist Gregory Burk and baritone saxophonist Henry Cook moved to Rome, Italy. Leo Blanco, from Merida, Venezuela jumped right into the piano chair, and Kurtis Rivers, a longtime stalwart of the Roxbury (Boston) jazz scene took over the baritone sax role (and is the second grandfather in the band). After auditioning a number of excellent drummer, the E/O settled on Pablo Bencid, from Caracas, Venezuela (yes, we're 20% Venezuelan now).
Three times over the past year, Mulatu Astatke, a major innovator in Ethiopian jazz, has come to the US to collaborate with the E/O on vibraphone, congas, timbales and with his compositions and arrangements.
Fully Notated Music without Drums
From 2002-2004, Gershon attended graduate school at Tufts University, earning a master degree in Music Composition. During this time, he studied African music, particular music of the Ewe and Dagomba peoples of Ghana, with David Locke, composition with John McDonald, conducting with Malka Yacobi, and 20th century music theory with Janet Schmalfeldt. Instead of writing jazz and related music while at Tufts, he concentrated on fully notated music without drums, or what one might call classical music. His masters thesis was a string quartet inspired by the music and instruments of Ethiopia, and written immediately before and after the E/O's trip to Ethiopia, entitled The Oldest Place. Other compositions included songs for soprano (voice) and string quartet, written for the new music group Brave New Works.
Willing to teach:
Advanced students only.