When one examines the evolution of jazz, certain key individuals stand out as turning points. For free jazz in Chicago, it was Hal Russell's various groups that eventually helped spur Mars Williams and Ken Vandermark to prominence (at least on record); and that has led us to a virtual avalanche of good music. So it's worth taking a closer look at the man who gave momentum to this turn.
In the early days, Russell was primarily a drummer. Elixir, a '79 live recording from Chicago, documents a show where he's joined by saxophonists Mars Williams and Spider Middleman. (His long-time companions, vibraphonist George Southgate and bassist Russ DiTusa, appear as well.) The coupling of the horns in the front line is natural and spontaneous. These two players speak with different voices, tone-wise and otherwise, but they come together in ways that offer exacerbated tension and sweet release. It's similar in a lot of ways to the sound of the post-Russell NRG Ensemble (which formed after Russell's untimely death in 1992, with Vandermark and Williams at the helm). One can sense here the roots of Vandermark's music, not so much in the styles used but in the overall framework. Elixir uses the framed juxtaposition of individual voices to achieve a total effect greater than the sum of the its parts; contrasting meters also serve to achieve the same effect. The ideas may seem complicated in theory, but they are surprisingly natural in practiceas Vandermark has made abundantly clear in his expanded compositional vision since his recorded output exploded in the mid-'90s.
Russell's drumming makes a dramatic appearance on the (formally) Ornette tune "Broadway Blues." His extended solo improvisation during this 16-minute track shows a peppery, quick-handed approach that melts into group interaction and even a bit of a groove. He's never one to hit the nail on the head, so there's a lot of interesting variation here. A little work on the electric bowed zither (a freaky instrument!) thickens up the textures on "Manas." But the really interesting stuff on Elixir is his tenor work on "Four Free." Russell would eventually record as a second tenor in the group (alongside Williams), so his early experiments with this instrument bear special inspection. He's got the energy thing going in a big way, and he's not hesitant to set off a few explosions.
Elixir offers exactly what it promises: a curious liquid with palliative effects. The fluid music on this disc is intensely personal, yet at the same time quite convivial. I recommend a dose. (The recording comes with a few minor shortcomings in sound qualitybut that's a small price to pay in order to hear an intimate club recording from 1979. This is the real thing.)
Personnel: Hal Russell: drums, tenor saxophone, electric bowed zither; Mars Williams: saxophones; Spider Middleman: saxophones; George Southgate: vibes, drums; Russ Ditusa: bass.