Composer and tenor saxophonist Russ Gershon started the Either/Orchestra in 1985, inspired by Sun Ra and Gil Evans. But the notion had already been brewing for a couple years–in the early 80s he’d played in a student big band at Harvard run by visiting professor Illinois Jacquet, and not long after he’d taken a Berklee class on the music of Charles Mingus. By using creative voicings and independently moving lines, Mingus could make a band sound bigger than actual size, and Gershon has developed a similar economy: the E/O gets close to a big band’s punch or Evans’s orchestral breadth with ten pieces. And like fellow tenor player Jacquet, whose jazz is juiced with raw R & B energy, Gershon has a populist bent: one of the early ork’s attention getters was a medley of Monk’s “Nutty” and Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” Living near Boston, that hub of music education, Gershon has had his pick of up-and-coming talent over the years; notable E/O alums include Matt Wilson, John Medeski, Josh Roseman, Dave Ballou, Charlie Kohlhase, and Oscar Noriega. The current roster features trumpeter Tom Halter, who’s been around since the E/O’s 1987 debut album, and baritone saxist Henry Cook, who was in that Harvard band; younger talents include trombonist Joel Yennior, whose field-hollering tone suggests he once stumbled across an old Rod Levitt LP. On the E/O’s seventh and most recent release, 2000’s More Beautiful Than Death (on Gershon’s Accurate label), the leader’s tunes are as ever the backbone of the book. “All Those SOB’s” spotlights Halter’s half-valved moans; the peppy melody of “Breaktime for Dougo,” reminiscent of kwela and various other Afropop styles, is carried by twin mariachi trumpets in rough unison. But Gershon’s originals are upstaged by his arrangements of three tunes he found on an anthology of 70s hits from Ethiopia–airy, majestic melodies with complex polyrhythmic underpinnings. These pieces also showcase the E/O’s superb pocket percussion section, Dominican conguero Vicente Lebron and Surinamese drummer Harvey Wirht. Suriname’s rhythmically intricate music combines indigenous sounds with a riot of Brazilian, Caribbean, Indian, Indonesian, and Dutch influences, all of which are reflected in Wirht’s off-kilter, around-the-back-of-the-backbeat kaseko licks; he proves there’s more than one way to swing a (little) big band. Friday, April 19, 9 PM, and Saturday, April 20, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonas Khan.