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Artist Profiles

In Memoriam: George Russell 1923-2009

By Published: September 6, 2009
George very deliberately wanted to have a functioning small band out there. As I recall, George's band had a gig at the Five Spot and my memory tells me that was the first time I got to hear him live. That would have been 1960, an interesting band with trombonist David Baker and a trumpet player who seemed promising at the time, then disappeared—Al Kiger.

The first recording I did of Russell's, in the fall of 1960 (Stratusphunk), was the band with bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Joe Hunt. Eventually I did four albums with Russell, including my only involvement with Eric Dolphy when he was a member of the Russell band on Ezz-Thetics. That had a couple of remarkable pieces in it, including an extremely unusual version of "'Round Midnight."

George was (and I think he would have appreciated this comment) never an easy person to work with. He was about as set in his ways as anyone I had worked with, which is saying a lot given the people and the temperaments I was dealing with at the time! Goddammit, he was going to do it his way.

Unlike a lot of instinctive and arbitrary performers in that period, you were positive that it was all laid out in his mind beforehand. He quite seriously informed me that he considered tape editing to be the final step in the creative process. He expected to be fooling around with the material after we finished recording—doing editing and making changes. I don't think he ever wanted to be finished with it. That's a characteristic of those I consider to be the most creative people I've worked with: the feeling of restlessness and dissatisfaction and never being ready to turn a project loose.

George Russell—along with such other free thinkers as Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans—was never prepared to be satisfied. He was never afraid to try new ideas, never willing to think of something as in its final shape. He knew where he wanted to be going and don't get in his way. I do go back and listen to the albums we did together from time to time, even though that's roughly a half-century ago. It hasn't lost its drama. It hasn't lost its impact. There isn't much music you can say that about.

—ORRIN KEEPNEWS, Record Producer

Thank you for your vision. Your music was truly unique and transcendent. Thank you for sharing your vast knowledge. Your thoughts on the fundamental principals of music-making were my first encounter with musical theory and has been of invaluable inspiration to me. You gave me the tools. Thank you for being the shaman who "saw" me and led me—at 17—through the initiation rites of becoming a musician. You´ll always be here.

Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
b.1947
sax, tenor
, Saxophonist

I saw him as the genius of all geniuses...beyond compare...way ahead of his time...even today. I loved him and his music.

George Garzone
George Garzone
George Garzone
b.1950
sax, tenor
, Saxophonist

A highlight of my young life was four summers in the Berkshires at the Lenox School of Jazz. This fantastic school helped shape my life. Many of the faculty became mentors and I had an exciting six-week stint at Atlantic Records with Tom Dowd. There were often many guest lectures and a highlight of the 1957 summer was an appearance by a king of the New York underground, George Russell. He stood up, made one of his customary bows to the audience, smiled—he was immaculately groomed with an Italian suit on—and proceeded to tell us about the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. Although George was an appreciator of harmonic innovation, he also often felt harmony inflicted tyranny on solo artists. He felt that a lot of his writing might inspire young improvisers to explore modal directions.

As important as his theoretical studies are, I primarily consider George's most important contribution in music as that of a composer. There are sounds that he gets from the orchestra and small group that no one else achieves. His music is as identifiable as that of Messiaen and Strayhorn. When hearing him six nights in a row at Birdland during the '60s and then 25 years later at Scullers, one could hear these orchestral sounds on keyboard.

George never considered himself a keyboard virtuoso but I believe he had a thoroughly formulated improvisational style, as well as the acknowledgement of this in his composition.

Ran Blake
Ran Blake
Ran Blake
b.1935
piano
, Pianist


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