It is not often that a CD is utterly captivating from the first few measures upon first listening. Some recordings capture so accurately a period of music and are so spontaneously perfect that their listeners are enthralled from start to finish, much like children on Christmas morning. Ezz-Thetics is such a CD, in the company of watermarks like Kind of Blue and The Blues and the Abstract Truth ; this is no overstatement.
1961 saw the first signs of acceptance of the new music being dubbed "avant-garde" or "The New Thing" Eric Dolphy's stint at the Five Spot, Coltrane's run at the Village Vanguard, and the release of Ornette Coleman's legendary Free Jazz generated as much praise as they did controversy. George Russell, the mastermind behind the development of modal playing and author of The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, had long been forging a unique path, teaching students as destined for greatness as Bill Evans and Art Farmer. The stars aligned perfectly on May 8th for Russell to take emerging talents Don Ellis (trumpet), Dave Baker (trombone), Eric Dolphy (alto sax, bass clarinet), a very young Steve Swallow (bass), and Joe Hunt (drums) into the studio.
The title track leads off the album with scorching solos all around. The knotty melody follows its own logic, but sounds somewhat like "Brilliant Corners"-meets-"Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum". After a haunting rendition of Miles Davis' "Nardis," featuring Dolphy on bass clarinet, we have another burner, one whose title is Russell taking a jab at himself "Lydiot." Of special note here should be Russell's performance in the piano chair. Though often revered for his theories and compositions, Russell is rarely recognized as a memorable improviser. This is an unjust oversight, as his playing here rivals Monk for sheer inventiveness and unpredictability. This is not to say he pounds the keys in Cecil Taylor-esque abandon; instead, his solo could be described with some accuracy as "minimalist," and more than anything else digs at the heart of the composition. Tunefulness pervades this adventurous recording, as evidenced by Dave Baker's "Honesty," a bluesy requiem on which the musicians blow the chords from New York to San Francisco. The "'Round Midnight" that closes the set is a special one. After a one-minute "kind of instrumental imitation of electronic sounds" (Martin Williams, from the original liner notes) Dolphy takes the melody in full regalia. There is no squeaking dissonance to be found here - nothing but pure soul. Dolphy has succeeded in eliminating the horn as a medium through which music is produced - his music is pure. At times it sounds as though he is crying, pleading, singing, and celebrating; Russell's sympathetic accompaniment does nothing but add to this version of Monk's magnum opus, which should be required listening for all.
I have rarely heard more convincing testimony in favor of cerebral jazz open to many oustide influences, including (but not exclusively) atonalities and dissonances. Ezz-Thetics receives my highest recommendation to both devoted fans of the avant-garde and to those wary of what they've heard described as "mindless banging" this is the album that will dispel all preconceived notions in the best possible way.
Personnel: George Russell: piano, arranger; Don Ellis: trumpet; Dave Baker: trombone; Eric Dolphy: alto saxophone, bass clarinet (2, 4); Stephen Swallow: bass; Joe Hunt: drums.