From Chicago to Addis

By JON GARELICK  |  February 9, 2006

It’s too bad he couldn’t get closer to the center of town for this show, but Artists-at-Large, which has been presenting improvising musicians for several years under the curatorship of pianist Steve Lantner, deserves credit for bringing him at all. Here was a great band playing to an enthusiastic crowd in a small, resonant room without amplification except for the strings. It was worth the trip. Unfortunately, the First Congregational Church, which houses A@L, says the gallery must vacate the premises by March 1. Remaining shows are February 10 with Allan Chase and February 24 with Joe Morris’s Abstract Forest.

The Either/Orchestra made their Bank of Boston Celebrity Series debut in one of the series’s “Boston Marquee” events for local artists on January 28 at the Berklee Performance Center. This is the band’s 20th anniversary year (their first show was in December 1985). They’ve always been fusionists, adapting King Crimson’s “Red” and Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” to jazz and connecting Thelonious Monk’s “Nutty” to Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” and, in one Grammy-nominated arrangement, joining Benny Moten and Charles Mingus at the hip.

But they’ve pursued no single path like their infatuation of the past five years or so with Ethiopian music. At Berklee, they featured three guests from DC’s Ethiopian music scene and played several pieces from Live in Addis (Buda Musique), the double-disc recording of their historic appearance in the 2004 Ethiopian Music Festival.

The Ethiopian music that the band play is in itself a hybrid: Western-educated (even Boston-educated) Ethiopian musicians bringing back the pop and jazz of the US to their homeland. So the Either/Orchestra are in effect doing an American take on an Ethiopian take of American music. A cinematic parallel comes to mind: Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde as a take on the French New Wave’s interpretation of American gangster movies. (I won’t even get into Serge Gainsbourg’s “Bonnie and Clyde.”)

SHOW STEALER Singer Hana Shenkute was one of three Ethiopian guests who made the Either/Orchestra’s Berklee gig rock.In Addis, the E/O played American jazz arrangements of Ethiopian pop for a native audience. At Berklee, it was the home-town crowd greeting newly Ethiopianized versions of material that’s become familiar in the local E/O performances of the past few years and from the Broken Flowers soundtrack. The band opened with “Yèzèmèd yèbada” arranged by Mulatu Astatke, of Broken Flowers fame, and E/O leader Russ Gershon. Here were the minorish Middle Eastern scales, the African rhythms, and those very jazz-like shifts in harmony and color, trombonist Joel Yennior and alto-saxophonist Jeremy Udden building their solos across the music’s varied sections, taking it from one improvised peak to the next.

But it was the three guests who defined the evening — Setegn Atanaw on the one-stringed bowed instrument the masinko, Minale Dagnew on the krar, an electrified lyre, and especially vocalist Hana Shenkute. Atanaw and Dagnew lent wonderful color, the latter with a high-life guitar sound, the former with virtuoso rhythmic passages. In a comic bit, Atanaw gave Gershon, bassist Rick McLaughlin, and trumpeter Tom Halter a “lesson” on what Gershon called “this most Ethiopian of Ethiopian instruments.”

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