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

John Kelman By

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George Russell—The Story of an American ComposerGeorge Russell: The Story of an American Composer

Duncan Heining

376 pages, hardback

ISBN: 978-0-8108-6997-4

Scarecrow Press


It's been out for a couple years now, but any book about American composer and founder of the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization—if not the most influential musical concepts ever written and applied to jazz, then certainly one of them—warrants attention. That it is as painstakingly researched and compiled by author (and occasional AAJ contributor) Duncan Heining—a UK-based writer who was fortunate enough to have befriended Russell in the latter part of his life, initially, no doubt, the result of deciding to take on this massive project, but ultimately bearing greater fruit, both for the project and beyond—only gives George Russell: The Story of an American Composer greater credibility, as Heining was able to uncover things that more distant writers could not.

Russell is one of those American artists who may be felt more than actually known to many jazz fans, and heard indirectly through the application of his concept rather than his own music, though he released no shortage of fine and, in some cases, truly groundbreaking recordings over the last half of the 20th century and into the new millennium. He's certainly far from a household name, despite coming up during the emergence of some of jazz's most prominent artists of the 1940s onwards, rubbing shoulders with everyone from trumpeters Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie (even giving the bebop progenitor the well-known "Cubano-Be, Cubano-Bop") and saxophonists Gerry Mulligan and Charlie Parker, to pianist John Lewis. He was part of the group of musicians who would congregate at composer/arranger Gil Evans' apartment to discuss music, play music and theorize about its possible future—also, at one point, used his own home as a similar gathering point.

But whereas most musicians work their theory in order to play and compose, Russell's life was, once he found it, dedicated to his Lydian Chromatic Concept, and virtually everything he did, from recording and composing to band leading and performance, was in service of the Concept. Few artists in the history of music, let alone the history of jazz, have been so single-minded. But if this sounds at all monolithic, what Heining helps to clarify in The Story of a American Composer is how expansive the Concept was—and is, as it remains a touchstone with artists ranging from trumpeter Randy Brecker and British pianist Howard Riley, saxophonist Jan Garbarek and guitarist Terje Rypdal.

These latter two Norwegian artists are particularly significant, as Russell was one of many African American artists who, after a particularly complex childhood impacted by illness and the racial divide in pre-1960s America, chose to emigrate to Europe, where there was less prejudice and greater acceptance. Russell's "finding" of Garbarek and Rypdal along with bassist Arild Andersen, drummer Jon Christensen and Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson—all destined for greater fame through their now lifetime affiliation with Manfred Eicher's German ECM label—was particularly significant, as was his ability to find other sympathetic folks in various organizations in the two Scandinavian countries, all of which led to a discography that has recently been collected by Cam Jazz into an eye- and ear-opening nine-CD box set, The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note (2011).

Heining follows Russell's life and career, from his early days being an adopted child in depression-era America, through to his final challenges (and more than occasional triumphs) and ultimate acceptance as one of the most significant contributors to the pure language of jazz. He addresses the challenges Russell had in getting his Concept accepted—after all, this was a lofty, rather intellectual set of ideas that, in printed form (and through its multiple iterations) remains dense and, for many, unfathomable. Still, Russell's Concept became adopted more through practice, and over the course of his career he worked with artists ranging from pianist Bill Evans to modern players that include, along with Brecker, guitarists David Fiuczynski and Mike Walker, saxophonist Andy Sheppard, trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg and bassist Steve Swallow.


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