Multi-instrumentalist and beloved free-jazz pioneer Hal Russell passed away in 1991 as the newly released Albert’s Lullaby represents one of Russell’s final recordings. Russell and his “NRG Ensemble” were infamous for crafting abstract, gleefully rambunctious avant-garde jazz compositions and improvisations as Russell also helped establish paradigms for many of our younger and present day modern or – new – jazz stylists. With Albert’s Lullaby (referencing Albert Ayler), Russell along with bassist and producer Mike Staron, drummer Rick Shandling and pianist, “Sparrow” (who appears on selected tracks) effortlessly, intuitively and somewhat aggressively whirl through a series of combination compositions/improvisations. The music portrayed here, jubilantly illustrates Russell’s creative if not wild and effulgent spark as a trumpeter-saxophonist and more importantly provides insight into the late artist’s freewheeling emotional outpourings in accordance with his clear-sighted sensibilities as a group leader and visionary.
The proceedings commence with Russell’s spin on the theme from the popular soap opera “Edge of Night”. Here, Russell performs on tenor sax while exhibiting some sort of diabolical Albert Ayler-ish sense of urgency as bassist Michael Staron constructs an arco-bridge amid drummer Rick Shandling’s sweeping patterns. Emotionally charged choruses continue on the late Albert Ayler’s composition titled, “Vibrations” as the musicians perform with an earthy or organic disposition. Pianist, Sparrow joins the band for the 25-minute “spontaneous improvisation”, “Who’s There” as Russell toggles between trumpet and saxophones. On this piece which at times does seem – composed – or pre-planned, the musicians pursue gradually evolving themes as Sparrow injects faint doses of melody while Russell serves as the catalyst whether working the background or launching into heated solo excursions. (Yet Russell’s sense of humor prevails as he quotes Ornette Coleman’s “Dancing In Your Head” which comes at you from left field).. Needless to state, we are provided with gobs of imagery as the musicians work from within dark corners and wide open vistas. Basically, there is quite a bit going on under the covers and somehow it all alludes to a sound sense of reason. - Throughout these 9 pieces, other than “W” which is a 1979 recording of bassist Michael Staron performing on a modulator Moog Synthesizer, the musicians engage sharp fragmented themes and choruses as Russell frequently provides brief jagged accents in support of the other soloists. Occasionally, Russell implies some elevated or perhaps exaggerated notion of what might have occurred if the music was being rendered by mainstream jazz musicians as this attribute in particular sheds some additional light on the late musician’s quick-wit and fertile imaginative powers.
Albert’s Lullaby is a remarkable portraiture of an artist who most assuredly would be blazing new musical trails if not for his untimely death. No, this isn’t material exhumed from the bowels of some record company’s basement, yet it is a snapshot of a man who opened up new doors during his lifetime as we sincerely hope that Russell’s music will continue to thrive and inspire those who wish to embark on similar courses. Strongly recommended.
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