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Artist Profiles

In Memoriam: George Russell 1923-2009

By Published: September 6, 2009
As I listened to the two-day musical tribute to George on WKCR, I was drawn again into its rich ethos. After all the linear, contrapuntal intricacy of his music in the '50s, George loosened the fabric in the '60s and '70s, layering worlds on worlds, jutting worlds together in, to use his word, a pan-stylistic way. But that doesn't seem the right word to me. Style always seems clearly defined. The long melodies, the killer tempos, both slower than and faster than, the charged use of electronic and extended acoustic textures, the varied forms and, as always, the deep blues elements, point not to someone playing with style, but to some other place of creating we all strive for.

George points out in the last edition of Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization that all the artists he worked with when he was developing his theoretical ideas had their own theory systems, which for the most part they guarded and did not articulate or share. He did the opposite. With this, he ran the risk, knowingly for sure, that some critics and listeners would look to the music as a demonstration of the theory, turning creativity and meaning on its head. Theory is a foundation, but only a beginning.

I don't know how to quantify the journey that leads from any theory to what I hear in George's music. Playing in his orchestra was surely one of the great challenges of my musical life, technically, conceptually and emotionally.

Marty Ehrlich
Marty Ehrlich
Marty Ehrlich
b.1955
reeds
, Saxophonist

A tribute to George from me seems to require more ego than I possess today—I realize more every year that he gave a word that I am still chasing—"chromatic." It wasn't until the recording of New York, New York that I understood what happened to me when I played his music. Things were never quite the same after that.

We shared a long and delightful friendship, with much laughter and warmth—we genuinely loved one another, although real grownups didn't talk like that then. He was (and is) our Schoenberg and our Stravinsky—leaving us a way to organize musical language that was unimaginable until George decided it needed to be done. He doesn't need a tribute from me—he gets my thanks every time I write or play a note. I miss him more than I thought I would—we had some good times still a'waitin' for us. Rest well, my dear.

Bob Brookmeyer
Bob Brookmeyer
Bob Brookmeyer
1929 - 2011
trombone
, Trombonist

George Russell opened an enormous door for me in 1965 when I was 19 years old. I was already a huge fan of George's music and his theories and was playing with a protege of his, Brian Trentham (trombonist and composer) at Columbia University. David Baker had been in an auto accident and had to give up the trombone. Brian, also a protege of David's, was going to Europe to join George. He talked George into bringing me over. I found myself at the Molde festival playing with George's sextet, Donald Byrd and Booker Ervin. You had to go by hydrofoil at that time and there was only one bass at the festival. It belonged to the other bassist, another 19-year-old—Danish guy named Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen. Can you imagine?

I made my first recording with George in Stuttgart that September (1965). It's still in print. Later, I worked a summer with a version of the big band that produced the New York, New York recording. George featured me in a concert at Carnegie Hall—the trio was Tony Williams, Stanley Cowell and myself playing "Living Time"—the suite George wrote for the Bill Evans trio with big band.

I last saw George at Max Roach's funeral at Riverside Church. He recognized me and we reminisced a little about my year in Scandinavia with him. George Russell was among the most important composers, arrangers and theoreticians in modern jazz—it's hard to imagine what the music would be like or what my life would have been like without him. He was a key link, maybe THE key link in the chain of events which formed my artistic and professional story—without him I wouldn't have met Don Cherry and on and on. Thank you, George, for your unique and invaluable contributions!

Cameron Brown
Cameron Brown
Cameron Brown
b.1945
bass
, Bassist

Having the opportunity to work with and learn from George Russell has been one of the great fortunes of my musical life. His expressive, provocative, exploratory compositions are profound as all masterworks are; they continue to resonate with listeners. His insights about the inner structure of music, as articulated in his theoretical work, inspire growth in those musicians who make the effort to check them out.


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