Fans of adventurous big band sounds will appreciate the tentet Either/Orchestra, and their new album, Ethiopiques 20: Live in Addis, deservedly boosts their profile on an international scale. Fronted by tenorist, composer, arranger and Accurate Records label-owner Russ Gershon, E/O boasts a dark, burnished collective timbre that reminds us of the deep, primal sounds large ensembles are capable of. The spirits of Monk, Ellington and Mingus are woven into the band’s sonic and compositional fabric, but its relatively young, forward-thinking members give it a challenging, modern allure. This group has served as an incubator of some highly acclaimed “newcomers” recently rising to fame (Miguel Zenon, John Medeski, Josh Roseman, Matt Wilson), Formed in 1985, E/O is enjoying its 20th year of gorgeously heavy harmonies and creative vanguardism. Now, why is their newest release recorded almost halfway across the world?
As explained in the album’s liner notes, Ethiopian popular music in the mid-1960s to ‘70s was at a peak; catchy, exotic horn arrangements and rootsy vocals were hallmarks of the style. The country’s capital, Addis Ababa, was the nucleus of the movement but the city’s nightlife, and therefore, musical culture, was stunted by the Dergue which deposed Haile Selassie in 1974. Ethiopian music certainly got back on its feet (in fact, Live in Addis is released on Buda Musique’s Ethiopiques series, which has reissued some of the albums from the music’s most fertile period), but there may be the feeling that their “golden age” has passed. It may, however, enjoy a renaissance now, thirty years later, and Either/Orchestra may be a part of it. In early 2004, E/O was invited to Ethiopia for a series of concerts and master-classes. It was the first time an American big band has performed in Ethiopia since Duke Ellington’s band in 1973.
E/O explores some beautiful territory here, giving popular Ethiopian songs a modern twist. While some of the music was written specifically for the visit, many of the charts are taken from their earlier discography. More Beautiful Than Death, recorded in 2000, has three songs that reappear on Live in Addis – tunes penned by Ethiopian songsters and deftly arranged by Gershon. Nice lengthy tracks, ferocious live performance, new sounds and reliable talent – check it out!