The Everyone Orchestra is, to paraphrase James Thurber, something very much like nothing anyone has ever seen before. The project offers improvisation with a conductor. There are just a few prior examples of this in the whole history of music, with John Zorn’s Cobra (1984) the most prominent. As with Zorn’s work, the Everyone Orchestra relies on cue cards wielded by the conductor to shape the flow of the music, and the music varies fundamentally according to who is playing it–there is no fixed “composition.” Word has spread about the unique Everyone Orchestra experience, and the concept has attracted players from genres ranging from jazz to rock, Americana, progressive bluegrass, and the long jam band tradition stretching back to the Grateful Dead.
Those vernacular genres had no place in Cobra, which was designated a game piece and based on a war strategy game. The Everyone Orchestra is not a game but a joyous happening. The cue cards are not fixed sets of instructions but dry-erase boards that can be altered by conductor and Everyone Orchestra creator Matt Butler as mood and inspiration strike. They include such categories as general states (“Chaos”), text (“hey!”), enthusiastic exclamations (“FREEDOM,” “Yes”), or directions (“Fade out”). Unlike Zorn, Butler sometimes directs these cards toward the audience, which often plays a substantial part in the performance.
At the center of the proceedings is Butler, who wears a sort of mystic baseball cap of love that must be seen to be believed. In addition to his cue cards, he directs the musicians with hand and arm gestures, jumps around the stage, and interacts with the players, exchanging looks and encouraging them, and at times joining in on vocal interjections or even vocal harmony–the Everyone Orchestra idea can be applied to songs as well as to instrumental improvisations.
Everyone Orchestra shows have attracted some big-name performers: rock guitarist Adrian Belew, progressive bluegrass musician Tony Furtado, hip-hop improviser and comedian Reggie Watts, and members of Bela Fleck’s Flecktones and legendary jam bands like Phish and String Cheese Incident. But part of their appeal is that they can incorporate local musicians and mix them up with the legends. The Everyone Orchestra’s Ark show on Wednesday, March 2, will feature Erin Zindle and Randall Moore of the Ragbirds and Brennan Andes of the Macpodz as well as members of the nationally known Fareed Haque band and the jam band moe. Whatever happens, it will be a one-of-a-kind musical event.