TROY — The name of the Either/Orchestra is something of a misnomer. It may have fit them when saxman Russ Gershon founded the 10-piece little big band 25 years ago, but these days their musical approach is anything but either/or.
Instead, they seem to embrace it all, exploring a wide variety of musical styles and mashing them all up together into one glorious sound. At the Sanctuary for Independent Media on Sunday afternoon, the Boston-based band premiered a sprawling new composition by Gershon, “The Collected Unconscious,” which, as he explained to the standing room only crowd at the Sanctuary, was about “mixing Ethiopian music with jazz and Latin music and discovering the similarities and connections.”
The Either/Orchestra completed their second Ethiopian tour earlier this year, and they have absorbed much of the seemingly exotic music and made it their own, as they proved with the ambitious premiere, shifting from odd Ethiopian rhythms to seductive Latin grooves to a kind of postmodern Dixieland. There were echoes of Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, Tito Puente and Frank Zappa that resonated throughout the eight-movement, 90-minute composition. Slinky and sensual one moment, nostalgic and bluesy the next, Gershon led the band through the complex and constantly shifting time signatures while remaining undeniably swinging throughout.
The ensemble playing was precise and powerful with the six-piece wall of horns often blasting out a unified melody and then breaking off to interweave lines in counterpoint, especially during the second section of the piece, “The Rest of Us.” The Either/Orchestra features some of the finest jazz players in New England — including baritone saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase (heard with Dead Cat Bounce at Proctors earlier this year) and young sax phenom Hailey Niswanger (who was one of the brightest discoveries of last year’s Freihofer Jazz Festival at SPAC) — and all 10 members took dazzling solo turns throughout the afternoon.
You might have thought that they would have nowhere to go after the massive “The Collected Unconscious,” but following a short intermission the band returned to the stage for another hourlong set that included several compositions by Nerses Nalbandian, an Armenian expatriate who shaped modern Ethiopian music as the first musical director of the Haile Selassie National Theater during the 1950s and ’60s. His work has rarely been heard since then, but the Either/Orchestra has taken on the task of reviving his music, and it sounded plenty fresh and forward-thinking even a half century later.
They wrapped up the concert with Gershon’s tasty slab of New Orleans street funk, “Somethin’ for NOLA,” proving without a doubt that a band of eclectic, esoteric jazzbos could get down and get funky, too.
By GREG HAYMES
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Sanctuary for Independent Media, 3361 6th Ave., Troy
Length: First set, 90 minutes; Second set, 60 minutes
Highlights: “The Collected Unconscious” (especially the closing section, “1509”), Nalbandian’s “Mambo No. 1” and the strutting “Somethin’ for NOLA”
The crowd: Standing room only
Upcoming: Sgt. Dunbar & the Hobo Banned march into the Sanctuary for the year-ending Live From Lock One Concert at 8 p.m. on Dec. 3.