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jazz: Fully Committed

The Either/Orchestra manages to be provocative and cutting edge at the same time.

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"We're a great dance band," says founder and leader Russ Gershon. "It's a roots gig for us, and we'll swing as hard as we can. If there is a crowd that wants to dance, we can lay it down."

Gershon started his performing career in a variety of late '70s/early '80s punk-rock bands. "The raw energy of punk was appealing compared to the bloated music of the fat '70s," he says. "But jazz is always what I wanted."

After emptying his bank account with a year at Boston's Berklee School of Music, he started the 11-member Either/Orchestra as a rehearsal band — a place for musicians to meet regularly to refine their playing and writing. Soon they were gigging. "With 11 guys in the band you can get fair crowds just from personal advertising," Gershon says.

When the band decided to record, he drew on the inspiration of both independent punk bands and jazz greats like Charles Mingus and Sun Ra, and formed his own recording company. "One thing led to another, and we found ourselves on a number of top 10 best of the year lists," Gershon recalls.

That first record, "Dial 'E' for Either/Orchestra" led to others, including "The Half-Life of Desire" and "The Calculus of Pleasure" (both featuring John Medeski) and 2000's "More Beautiful Than Death."

The band was soon touring extensively. "A lot of the band members were from the Midwest," Gershon says. "So we just went out into the heartland to find places to play, like an indie-rock band. Nobody in jazz was touring then. We were really on a shoestring budget. To make money we would do a whole lot of gigs in a row: clubs, schools, parties, weddings, anywhere. But over a couple of years we built a reputation." (John Medeski learned his funk chops in the stripped-down party-band lineup called The Neither Norchestra; later Medeski, Martin and Wood would achieve their breakthrough duplicating the grassroots touring approach.)

The experience on the road transformed the music. "It was like the big bands of the old days. They were great musicians, geniuses, but they also played every night," Gershon says.

"Most large groups are lucky to get a rehearsal or two, or maybe a few days of residency before a concert. The players can sight read and get every note right, but no matter how good they are they are going to struggle as an ensemble," Gershon says. "When you play together three to four nights a week it becomes a whole new thing — organic, natural, like rock."

Making it work requires a high level of dedication. "We're a commitment-level band," Gershon says. "To be a part you have to be there and to support the others like family." The stability of the band enables Gershon, like Duke Ellington, to write arrangements around individual musicians. "Every player is a color in your palette," Gershon says.

In the never-ending blur of summer festivals, club dates and swing-dance soirees, the important thing is getting in front of an audience. Gershon's philosophy? "Don't wait, go out and make it happen," he says. "You'll learn five times as much onstage as you do in rehearsal." S



The Either/Orchestra plays during The Big Gig's Sunday Swing at the Bolling Haxall House, 211 E. Franklin St. Show starts at 2 p.m. and costs $5.

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