By Ed Hazell
At 83, George Russell moves a little slower than he used to and his voice, which has never lost its Midwestern twang, is softer. But his eyes have not lost their amused, intelligent twinkle and he has never lost his passion for making music.
"My aim at this point is to understand the language of music in its deepest sense and contribute to it, enrich it," he said one evening recently, sitting at the kitchen table of his home on a quiet side street in Jamaica Plain, a Boston neighborhood. "Music as a living thing, a component of the emotional center of all living things. It speaks not only to the emotional center, but also to the intellectual and physical centers. What it has to say must be understood. I want to see in the meanings of music more deeply. I want to know the inner of everything. My music is trying to tell me that so I can tell the world."
The passions that have driven Russell's quest for "the inner of everything" for more than half a century are beautifully showcased on The 80th Birthday Concert
(Concept), the latest release by Russell and his Living Time Orchestra. The urgency of Russell's compositions, their searching quality, their intellectual rigor, emotional vibrancy and sheer physicality make this ageless music, even compositions from 35 years ago, sound freshly minted and shocking in their intensity. It's also shocking to realize this is his first domestic release since his Blue Note recordings of 20 years ago.
As a young drummer and arranger out of Cincinnati, Russell came east to New York after stints with the Benny Carter Orchestra and the Earl "Fatha" Hines Big Band. Tuberculosis sidelined Russell's promising, if somewhat conventional, jazz career, and ultimately sent it careening off in new directions. While convalescing, Russell made the single most important discovery of his life and established a milestone in jazz history. "I began my Lydian Chromatic research in 1945 in St. Joseph's Hospital, 143 Brook Avenue, Bronx, New York, where I stayed for 14 months recovering from tuberculosis. Six months of bed rest. When I could get up, I asked a nun if they had a piano. She took me to the hospital library, which no one ever used. So for months I just played the major scale and the Lydian scale, octaves. The major scale octave didn't sound final, the Lydian scale octave did. Tonal gravity and the birth of chord-scale unity were born there in St. Joseph's."
The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, Russell's theoretical treatise on the relationships between chords, scales, and modes is the first and probably the most influential music theory to grow out of jazz practice. He has just finished a fourth and he says final revision. "The foundation of the concept is that the Lydian scale is the true scientific scale, in the sense that it gives birth to the basic unit of tonal gravity, which is the interval of the fifth. That's how music behaves. There's nothing there because I like it. I don't speak as its author; I speak as a conduit. It was already there, but I do think that I was on its wavelength to pick it up."
After his initial discoveries, Russell logged an impressive list of milestones in jazz composition. His 1947 "Cubana Be, Cubana Bop", which he wrote for Dizzy Gillespie's big band with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, is both the first modal jazz composition and an early AfroCuban jazz piece. Works blending classical and jazz, like 1949's "A Bird in Igor's Yard" anticipated Third Stream music. By the time he made New York, New York
(1958) and Jazz in the Space Age
(1960), Russell's integration of writing and soloing, ability to interweave several themes, handle tempo changes and attention to the overall form of increasingly long composition marked him as one of the era's most advanced composers.
In the early '60s, Russell's sextets played charts that transcended the usual head-solos-head formula and often employed bitonality and multiple tempos. Albums by small groups, such as At the Five Spot
are among Russell's best releases. Despite the quality of his work, Russell got little attention and in 1964, disenchanted with the US, he moved to Scandinavia, where his writing grew increasingly ambitious in scope. At 40 minutes, his 1969 "Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature", (heard on the first disc of the new set) stretches the limits of jazz composition. By integrating a musique concrète tape into the piece, Russell also stretched jazz into the world of electronic sound, creating one of the very first electro-acoustic jazz compositions.