Why George Russell Will Always Live in Time

By Published: | 13,404 views
A measure of just how underrated a musician he was in his lifetime is reflected in the fact that even three days after he passed on most of the major publications had not even reported his death, much less celebrated his life in the glowing terms that he so richly deserved. Perhaps this was because oddly enough he may have spent a lifetime mostly in the quietude of musical intellectualism rather than in its practice. That is, after all how most may ultimately remember George Russell, born June 23, 1923—died July 27, 2009. He did author the most important work in jazz, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization (Concept Publishing, 1953; Concept Publishing Ed. 1959), which is odd, because George Russell just happens to also rank as one of the most important composers, arrangers, conductors—not just a musical intellectual—in the history of jazz. Listen to his peers. Read what they have said. Men like Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
b.1925
composer/conductor
and Gil Evans
Gil Evans
Gil Evans
1912 - 1988
composer/conductor
, Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
, Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
, John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, David N. Baker
David N. Baker
b.1931
cello
and scores of others. But trust fickle audiences and big record labels to have given him the short shrift in his lifetime.



George Russell wrote one of the earliest Afro-Cuban-Jazz classics, "Cubana-Be/Cubana-Bop," which was immortalized by Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
. And the great conguero, Chano Pozo
Chano Pozo
Chano Pozo
1915 - 1948
congas
glorified it with a solo that will forever stick in the memory. But the song was a majestic piece of musical architecture that even Diz and Chano Pozo would agree that though Pozo's solo was such a lesson in drumming, nothing could detract from the melding of styles: the electrifying chopped rhythms of bebop and the beautifully cadenced, calculated stutter of Afro-Cuban polyrhythms.

That was in 1947. So although Russell did contribute one of the most important books in jazz theory, he matched that up amply and more and earlier too, with some exquisite music, "Cubana-Be/Cubana-Bop" and the later "A Bird in Igor's Yard" (1949), which took an impressionistic look at how the bebop of Bird and the ultra-radical concepts of Igor Stravinsky could become not-so-strange-bedfellows. And these were just the start of a glorious songbook.

The Theory

Still it pays to remember the theory. Russell's historic book marked a major advancement in jazz: the beginning of the Modal period that was to influence men like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and later Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
as well. Jazz musicians had been improvising on chord changes for decades before, whereas modal compositions emphasized more linear modes (like melody) rather than vertical ones (Chordal).

Russell's theory had united the Lydian—one of several ancient modes, which is a scale of unity for the tonic major chord—with a modern use of chromatics, so instead of a key signature dictating and limiting the musician's choice of notes, the tonal center of the piece of music became its center of gravity; the harmonic, chordal richness was still available but now the choice of notes became wider, almost limitless.

This concept—that melodic ideas assume sectional autonomy, independent of any harmonic progression—may have inadvertently begun with Lester Young
Lester Young
Lester Young
1909 - 1959
saxophone
. But Russell captured it in its entirety and made it stick with compositions to match. No wonder that men like John Lewis
John Lewis
John Lewis
b.1920
piano
, Art Farmer
Art Farmer
Art Farmer
1928 - 1999
flugelhorn
and Ornette Coleman, among others, called it the single most important advance in Jazz theory.

Their paths crossed and forever changed the jazz geography of New York in the 1950s. So George Russell was also associated with Gil Evans. But if anything, Russell's seminal work was a big influence on the thing of Evans. And both men conceived their music on infinitely larger aural canvases. However, because of the complexity of Russell's work, they were less easy to grasp than Evans' music. Consequently Russell may have got the shorter end of the straw when it came to documentation and representation on major record labels in the US. That did not stop him.

Debut as leader

comments powered by Disqus
Sponsor: Summit Records | BUY NOW

Enter it twice.
To the weekly jazz events calendar

Enter the numbers in the graphic
Enter the code in this picture

Log in

One moment, you will be redirected shortly.

or search site with Google