Hal Russell's Chemical Feast: Elixir
The music of Chemical Feast incorporates an ingredient often lacking from most free jazz - a healthy helping of humor and whimsy. One of Hal Russell’s numerous pre-NRG vehicles, the quintet juggled a manic improvisatory energy with all-wheel drive versatility and a circus-like jocularity pervaded their music. As the first of a series of archival recordings culled from Russell’s extensive private tape cache by John Corbett and Mars Williams the rollicking performance captured on this disc presents the band in front of a small Chicago gallery audience circa the close of the 70s.
Russell is the charismatic barker behind the drum kit, banging out an irresistible invitation that sucks the crowd in and holds them transfixed. In addition to his ringmaster role he’s also the primary rhythmic fuel source for the band and the horns routinely draw power from his strenuous stick work. Not wasting a lick for introductions the barnstorming version of Coleman’s “Broadway Blues” that opens the disc approximates the spectacle of a wrestling match with Williams and Middleman vying for supremacy in the ring. Russell pummels out and eddying undercurrent and Ditusa’s bottom-heavy strings bubble up in the surging noise. Southgate’s glimmering vibes are almost demulcent by comparison and his brief statement primes the patrons for the punishing volume of the leader’s ensuing solo.
“Manas” and “Kahoutek” are tone poems of sorts with Russell moving from his trap kit to ominous bowed zither and it’s on these pieces where the capricious momentum of the performance dissipates a degree into introspective navel gazing. Russell’s turn on tenor for “Four Free” is similarly suspect (he had only been playing the instrument a comparatively short time), but he what he lacks in facility he more than compensates for in enthusiasm. Much like his ferocious, non-idiomatic drumming, his reed inventions celebrate emotive expression over precision technique.
Arguably the disc's centerpiece, the fantastic rendition of Dave Holland’s “Four Winds” explodes from a burst of tape static an visits what sounds like Williams in mid-solo. Throughout it's generous duration the piece only hints tangentially in places on the composer’s memorable melody. Also adding to the anything goes ambience are Southgate’s free-form vibes extravaganza, speckled with verbal affirmatives from the band, and Russell’s surprisingly subtle drum oration.
Foibles in the source tape such as some odd phase shifting during sections and a coarsely metallic sound floor contribute further to the unruly acoustics (a perfect compliment to the ad hoc improvisations). The recording isn’t going to win any laurels for clean fidelity, but its very existence precludes any finger waving at its shortcomings. Russell’s discography is sparse enough as it currently stands. The prospect of future releases like this one is made all the more appealing considering he’s no longer with us and the source of the reservoir is his own personal stash.
Unheard/Atavistic on the web: http://www.atavistic.com
Track Listing: Broadway Blues/ Manas/ Four Free/ Four Winds/ Kahoutek/ March of the Cellulite Goddesses/ Airborne.
Personnel: Hal Russell- drums, tenor saxophone, amplified bowed zither; Mars Williams- saxophones; Spider Middleman- saxophones; George Southgate- vibes, drums; Russ Ditusa- bass. Recorded: March 5, 1979, Chicago, IL.