George Russell And The Living Time Orchestra
80th Birthday Concert
Now and then in recent years, George Russell (born 1923) has attacked what he considers backward-looking tendencies in the playing of younger jazzmen. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra was among those who fell under grave suspicion. Yet there's not much difference between the music on 80th Birthday Concert and Wynton Marsalis' arrangement of "A Love Supreme" for LCJO.
Russell, though always sympathetic to new things, has never himself set out to be modishbut he's never sounded dated. He can't have considered his music was becoming hackneyed when he performed for this eightieth birthday concert pretty well the same programme I heard him conduct twenty years ago. There were differences, but no more than you'd expect to hear in, say, two performances of the same opera twenty years apart. There was the same material, the same changes in mood and the same performing detail. There were different soloists, but they shared the same values. Russell says he's an authoritarian leader, but unlike most dictators he knows what he's doing. And he chooses intelligent people to govern.
Russell performs music which is seriously close to the edge. He has long been an active and enthusiastic teacher, and has organised bands full of students. It would probably be impossible to play in any of his ensembles without being taught a lot by him. He uses written scores, but they need a lot of interpretation.
Simply playing Russell's rhythms demands incredible co-ordination, and requires his conducting to keep things from falling apart. Russell began as a big band drummer. Rhythm is his business, to quote an advertising slogan used for bandleaders when Russell was still in the bugle corps.
TB nailed Russell when he was Benny Carter's drummer, and so some sixty years ago he was obliged to take up the study of musical theory rather than carry on with arduous performances as a drummer. From these studies Russell produced his Lydian concept of tonal organisation and the notion of vertical form. These were no pie-in-the-sky fantasies, but the result of serious practice and listening. He didn't read transcriptions, he listened to a large range of music rather than printed approximations. He thought about intonation, actual sound.
Russell has never been interested in writing music for any specific audience. He's an intellectual and has feelings about all manner of serious issues. He doesn't compartmentalise, because he understands that metaphysics, ecology, boogaloo and technical analysis move together. Imagine a dancing philosopher. I suspect he doesn't like music which seems not to involve thinking.
I first saw Russell at a European jazz festival just before the advent of CDs, when it wasn't easy to know what to expect at one of his concerts. The story of him appearing in a white suit and dancing in front of a student band added to the mystery. Russell was of course conducting, not simply dancing. There had to be a reference among all those rhythms and contrapuntal lines. The music was played to his dancing.
Recordings of some of this birthday concert repertoire go back a long way. When he was professor to young Vikings like Jan Garbarek, a lot of this music was recorded by Swedish radio and some was released on the Italian Soul Note label.
There was considerable content and substance in Russell's music even sixty years back, with compositions like "Cubano Be-Cubano Bop" for the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. Chano Pozo played congas and chanted, and Russell did some very modern scoring for that very virtuoso band. The orchestration's use of layered, interconnecting rhythms is a marvel.
That's a continent away from the opening of 80th Birthday Concert. Russell's peer Gil Evans went over to electronics from the conviction that new jazz has be close to what people are dancing to. In his own, large, partly electronic support department, Russell has a flexible instrument, or section. The bass section changes key, the pace of a performance shifts. "Listen To The Silence" is the concert's opener, with echo applied to Palle Mikkelborg's trumpet.
Possibly the definitive recording of "Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved By Nature" is the lengthy Scandinavian one. Russell compiled a tape bringing together a continuity of sounds and ethnic music from all around the world. Pitches, modulations and rhythms were registered, without the overtones which differentiate trumpet from saxophone from human voice, et cetera.
This tape played while the hornmen, whose roles are the same as their predecessors back in the Carter and Gillespie bands, read parts from the printed score. They listen as soon as the tape starts, they come in together, take solos or breaks, and the performance winds up. The tape playing with bass and percussion forces them to be interesting, just as Andy Sheppard is later on, his hoedown tenor playing modal lines over shifting orchestral figures.
The second movement has some sci-fi music, suggesting other worlds, then later still Russell rings further changes with electronics and rock-ish guitar: he becomes colloquial, sounds unsophisticated, and it's like what in John Wayne's youth was referred to as Injuns going on the warpath. Ghoulish keyboard, hairy ensemble playing of oblique music, Sheppard hooting with dancing bass guitarand then four minutes from the end a false start precedes the dionysiac conclusion (which one unappreciative writer wrote of as "Boogaloo," though it's actually far from rhythmically simple.)
Blue Note recorded the original "The African Game" in 1983. Twenty years later amd five minutes shorter this performance repeats Russell's musical meditation on all human history from when God ("she" Russell says,) threw the first dice in Africa. Why shouldn't Russell make a dance of the peoples' story? That's been done all over the world. There's a beginning, and there are successive episodes, but no middle. That would imply an end, when what we have is a question.
There's tenderness in the primaeval fragments, bugle corps and tribal drums announcing "The Palaeolithic Game", and strident rhythmic figures and bashing drums precede Andy Sheppard demonstrating with a huge workout that this is still music. Russell's not daft, he programmes only the music in things. "Consciousness" has a mellow intro with guitar, and Mikkelborg plus echo conjures a sound like Gil Evans' Out Of The Cool, but breathy. A bass guitar figure seems to indicate standing on two legs for the first time, and while it may seem appropriate Russell probably didn't intend this performance at this point, as later, to make plain how much he relies at times on by no means unconventional big band scoring.
Consciousness goes into a hoe-down, and "The Survival Game" goes in for some strutting. This is a more flowing performance than the Blue Note one, maybe a shade too relaxed beside the premiere's occasional stiffness. Even better was a radio tape I heard somewhere in the twenty years of the composition's performing history. But each time something else emerges.
Sheppard has less than a minute on tenor over synthesizer on "The Human Sensing Of Union With Great Nature" before taking the solo role on "African Empires," quiet and distant above chimes and transitions. Then there's more warpath, not so different from the modern life of our own dear (costly) species. "Cartesian Man" presents calculated-sounding bass guitar figures, and after Chris Biscoe's alto, Bargeron's trombone brings in "The Mega-Minimalist Age". Whatever that means, "The Future?" is set up for Steve Lodder's wheeze and screech keyboard, and with Sheppard piping on top, first the deeper instruments and then the brass build, and the rhythms become more urgent. Is this increasing excitement, challenge, complexity, or what? A wind-down forms the questionmark.
Every George Russell show has its playout, and "It's About Time" is a composition playing with the multiple meanings of its title. Mikkelborg would have sounded breathy even without the echo added on the frequent Russell closer, "So What". Russell so loved Miles Davis's solo on that number on the Kind Of Blue album that he scored the whole thing. Given Russell's aforementioned suspicion of backward looking, and the scale of this concert programme and the sheer labour of preparation and performance, there's probably a good answer to the question I'll end with. Why has he been performing this music for so long?
Tracks: Listen to the Silence; Announcement; Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature ; The African Game; It's About Time; So What.
Personnel: Stuart Brooks: lead trumpet; Stanton Davis, Palle Mikkelborg: trumpets; Dave Bargeron: trombone; Richrd Henry: bass trombone; Chris Biscoe: alto saxophone; Andy Sheppard: tenor saxophone; Pete Hurt: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Hiro Honshuku: flute, electronics; Brad Hatfield, Steve Lodder: keyboards; Bill Urmson: Fender bass; Mike Walker: guitar; Richie Morales: drums; Pat Hollenbeck: percussion.