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Book Reviews

Duncan Heining: George Russell - The Story of an American Composer

By Published: August 31, 2012
While Heining is obviously a devoted fan, that doesn't mean he sugarcoats anything. Russell could be a difficult man—as is so often the case with those driven by a singular vision—and his numerous relationships over the years paint a picture of a solitary being, at least until he met his third wife Alice in the 1970s, a woman who, by taking over the business side, was in many ways responsible for the continuance of his career and recordings. He was not exactly monogamous in his early life, yet despite a relationship that did not come to fruition, Sheila Jordan
Sheila Jordan
Sheila Jordan
holds no malice, as Russell's recruitment of the young singer for a moving and unexpectedly deep arrangement of "You are My Sunshine," ultimately released on The Outer View (Riverside, 1963), helped kick-start her career.

It's a complex book with a great many threads, and Heining's meticulous and exhaustive research, right back to Russell's youth, makes The Story of an American Composer an engaging, educational and entertaining read that not only draws the threads of Russell's together, it positions them in the greater context of jazz's evolution, in particular during the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

There is only one place where the book lags a tad, but looking at the entire picture, it was almost inevitable. After wrapping up Russell's life in the penultimate chapter, Heining devotes the final one to an in-depth discussion of the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization—its merits, its flaws, its acceptance and rejection, its broader context. Heining even goes so far as to bring elements of psychology, sociology, physics and other disciplines into the mix, in order to demonstrate that Russell's Concept was more than simple music theory. As with Russell's Concept, this is a dense chapter, and while such discussions might well have been better placed, contextually, throughout the entire book, Heining made the right choice in delineating it into a separate chapter. Whether or not the reader has the wherewithal to grasp what Heining does with the final chapter, the biographical portion of the book—nearly 300 of its 376 pages, and the final 50 pages are devoted to appendices that include an exhaustive discography, tour dates and bibliography. And if nothing else is learned from the final chapter (and there's plenty), it's a quote from Ben Schweinder, a Russell collaborator and teacher of the Lydian Chromatic Concept at the New England Conservatory:

"The Concept is not a 'paint by numbers' sort of concept. It ultimately puts 100 percent responsibility for creativity on you. That's not to say that analysis of what's already been done doesn't play an important role in learning the Concept—it's that conceptual analysis uncovers the tonal resources a composer/improviser employed in his or her work and how tonal gravity is being manifested. Any system can be identified, if one chooses, after that. All systems and methodologies, within equal temperament, are embraced in the Lydian Chromatic Concept. The Concept simply offers an objective organization of all the tonal resources (melodic and harmonic) available. It's up to the musician to arrange or combine any selection from these elements in a way that fulfils the creative aim of whatever music is trying to be created. You can either choose from a methodology, or you choose from natural elements and create your own 'methodology' or 'system.' Choosing from natural elements and their 'modes of behavior, as George puts it, allows for direct access to your own essence. George mentions 'essence' a lot. I think what he's referring to is that unified core of your being that expresses one's individuality.

An overdue, complete and comprehensive look at an American jazz legend, whose recognition may not have been as great as he deserved, but which mattered little as Russell's overriding concern was the Concept—always the Concept. George Russell: The Story of an American Composer is an essential read for anyone looking to not only understand George Russell's life and times, but how this one man literally changed the landscape of jazz, and whose Concept remains an integral part of its ongoing evolution.

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