All About Jazz

Home » Articles » CD/LP/Track Review


Hal Russell's Chemical Feast: Elixir

AAJ Staff By

Sign in to view read count
When one examines the evolution of jazz, certain key individuals stand out as turning points. For free jazz in Chicago, it was Hal Russell's various groups that eventually helped spur Mars Williams and Ken Vandermark to prominence (at least on record); and that has led us to a virtual avalanche of good music. So it's worth taking a closer look at the man who gave momentum to this turn.

In the early days, Russell was primarily a drummer. Elixir, a '79 live recording from Chicago, documents a show where he's joined by saxophonists Mars Williams and Spider Middleman. (His long-time companions, vibraphonist George Southgate and bassist Russ DiTusa, appear as well.) The coupling of the horns in the front line is natural and spontaneous. These two players speak with different voices, tone-wise and otherwise, but they come together in ways that offer exacerbated tension and sweet release. It's similar in a lot of ways to the sound of the post-Russell NRG Ensemble (which formed after Russell's untimely death in 1992, with Vandermark and Williams at the helm). One can sense here the roots of Vandermark's music, not so much in the styles used but in the overall framework. Elixir uses the framed juxtaposition of individual voices to achieve a total effect greater than the sum of the its parts; contrasting meters also serve to achieve the same effect. The ideas may seem complicated in theory, but they are surprisingly natural in practice—as Vandermark has made abundantly clear in his expanded compositional vision since his recorded output exploded in the mid-'90s.

Russell's drumming makes a dramatic appearance on the (formally) Ornette tune "Broadway Blues." His extended solo improvisation during this 16-minute track shows a peppery, quick-handed approach that melts into group interaction and even a bit of a groove. He's never one to hit the nail on the head, so there's a lot of interesting variation here. A little work on the electric bowed zither (a freaky instrument!) thickens up the textures on "Manas." But the really interesting stuff on Elixir is his tenor work on "Four Free." Russell would eventually record as a second tenor in the group (alongside Williams), so his early experiments with this instrument bear special inspection. He's got the energy thing going in a big way, and he's not hesitant to set off a few explosions.

Elixir offers exactly what it promises: a curious liquid with palliative effects. The fluid music on this disc is intensely personal, yet at the same time quite convivial. I recommend a dose. (The recording comes with a few minor shortcomings in sound quality—but that's a small price to pay in order to hear an intimate club recording from 1979. This is the real thing.)

Track Listing: Broadway Blues; Manas; Four Free; Four Winds; Kahoutek; March of the Cellulite Goddesses; Airborne.

Personnel: Hal Russell: drums, tenor saxophone, electric bowed zither; Mars Williams: saxophones; Spider Middleman: saxophones; George Southgate: vibes, drums; Russ Ditusa: bass.

Title: Elixir | Year Released: 2001 | Record Label: Atavistic Worldwide


comments powered by Disqus

CD/LP/Track Review
Read more articles


Atavistic Worldwide


Albert's Lullaby

Southport Records





Related Articles

Read Ravensburg CD/LP/Track Review
by Mike Jurkovic
Published: March 17, 2018
Read Turbulence CD/LP/Track Review
by Tyran Grillo
Published: March 17, 2018
Read Black Swan CD/LP/Track Review
Black Swan
by Chris Mosey
Published: March 17, 2018
Read Both Sides Of The Sky CD/LP/Track Review
Both Sides Of The Sky
by Sacha O'Grady
Published: March 17, 2018
Read Beethoven – Missa Solemnis CD/LP/Track Review
Beethoven – Missa Solemnis
by C. Michael Bailey
Published: March 17, 2018
Read Miles Davis & John Coltrane - The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6 CD/LP/Track Review
Miles Davis & John Coltrane - The Final Tour: The...
by Mike Jurkovic
Published: March 16, 2018
Read "Leap of Faith Orchestra - Possible Universes" CD/LP/Track Review Leap of Faith Orchestra - Possible Universes
by Karl Ackermann
Published: July 1, 2017
Read "Bismuth" CD/LP/Track Review Bismuth
by Geno Thackara
Published: November 29, 2017
Read "The Child in Me" CD/LP/Track Review The Child in Me
by Friedrich Kunzmann
Published: November 23, 2017
Read "Swinging In The Holidays" CD/LP/Track Review Swinging In The Holidays
by Dan Bilawsky
Published: December 11, 2017
Read "It's Always 9.30 In Zog" CD/LP/Track Review It's Always 9.30 In Zog
by Roger Farbey
Published: August 11, 2017
Read "Ellipse" CD/LP/Track Review Ellipse
by Dan McClenaghan
Published: February 23, 2018