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George Russell Sextet: Ezz-Thetics

Troy Collins By

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A post-war masterpiece, Ezz-Thetics is pianist/arranger George Russell's definitive 1961 sextet recording from the earliest phase of his multi-decade career. On par with such iconic albums as Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse!, 1961), Mal Waldron's The Quest (Riverside, 1961) and Andrew Hill's Point of Departure (Blue Note, 1964), Ezz-Thetics traffics in the same advanced but accessible strain of avant-garde-influenced post-bop.

Author of The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization (pub. 1953), Russell's seminal concepts of improvisation, based on scales rather than chords, became the driving force behind the early modal explorations of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. This pioneering session offers a singular and visionary view of classic post-bop that is ageless in its perfection.

Starring a phenomenal group of talent, Russell's sextet features multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Don Ellis, trombonist Dave Baker, a young Steve Swallow on acoustic bass and drummer Joe Hunt. Undaunted by Russell's unorthodox arrangements and tricky, pan-tonal harmonic sensibility, these young firebrands tackle these knotty compositions with flawless technique and unbounded creativity.

"Ezz-Thetic" opens the album with a bustling, circuitous theme that ripples with spiraling angularity. Inspiring a round of exhilarating statements from the horns, the tune breaks down into a sequence of recurrent call and response between the rhythm section and brass that eschews typical conventions of pattern and form.

Supported by subtle counterpoint and an elegant arrangement, Miles Davis' exotic "Nardis" is given a haunting reading. The sly and unassuming "Lydiot" reveals Russell's minimalist angularity behind the piano, while Dolphy displays a keening, expressive aspect in contrast to Ellis' dulcet trumpet.

Using the blues as a basic framework, Baker's contribution, "Thoughts," incorporates free-form sections at regular intervals, exposing the fine line between tradition and innovation. "Honesty" is a celebratory ode; a vibrant hybrid of classic swing and edgy futurism that contrasts bluesy lyricism with suspenseful, stop-time segments.

A prescient rendition of Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight" acts as a showpiece for Dolphy. Opening with a free-form section of tiny instrumental sounds and highly vocalized brass effects, it pre-dates the work of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music) by almost a decade. A brilliant study in dynamics and virtuosity, Dolphy's alto solo is legendary. Incorporating intervallic leaps and register changes with a highly vocalized tone and mellifluous phrasing, he offers a definitive statement on a hallowed theme.

Two takes of the previously unissued "Kige's Tune" appear as bonus tracks. A driving bop-ish vehicle, it is a worthwhile addition, providing the perfect coda to a brilliant session.

Cerebral and innovative, yet firmly grounded in tradition, Ezz-Thetics is essential listening and an absolute requirement for any comprehensive jazz collection. Russell's masterwork is beautiful, enthralling and adventurous, a perfect summation of all the innovations post-war jazz has to offer.

Track Listing: Ezz-Thetic; Nardis; Lydiot; Thoughts; Honesty; 'Round Midnight; Kige's Tune (take 2); Kige's Tune (take 5).

Personnel: George Russell: piano, arranger; Don Ellis: trumpet; Dave Baker: trombone; Eric Dolphy: alto saxophone, bass clarinet (2, 4); Stephen Swallow: bass; Joe Hunt: drums.

Title: Ezz-Thetics | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: Riverside

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