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George Russell Remembered

George Russell Remembered

Courtesy Jan Persson


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Perhaps there were missed opportunities along the way. There were certainly times when he might have made other career choices, but one never got the sense that he regretted anything.
How is it that one of the most significant figures in modern jazz is so often overlooked when histories of the music are written? And how come one of its most important composers is not immediately acknowledged when jazz is discussed? Therein hang a number of tangled tales.

The centenary of composer, musician, bandleader, educator and musical theorist George Russell arrived in June, 2023. As a theorist his ideas shaped the ways in which modern jazz developed from the '50s onwards. Saxophonist Archie Shepp described his treatise, the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization as "the bible of the avant-garde," while the modal approaches pioneered by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Oliver Nelson and others would at the very least have taken a different form were it not for Russell.

As a composer, Russell has few peers. Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus might rank a notch higher and have had greater influence but Russell takes the bronze. And even those two greats were never able to chart the choppy waters of extended composition as successfully as George Russell.

His CV reads like a "Who's Who?" of modern jazz from Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Davis and Gil Evans to Coltrane, Don Cherry and Eric Dolphy. They were his friends and many of them played his music. In the '60s, and living for a time in Scandinavia, he connected with young—and older—Norwegian, Swedish and Danish musicians like Jan Garbarek, Arild Andersen, Bernt Rosengren, Palle Mikkelborg and Terje Rypdal. Later as a teacher at the New England Conservatory (NEC) under his friend Gunther Schuller he taught people like Don Byron and John Medeski, while others such as Randy Brecker and Michael Brecker studied his theories at Indiana University with Russell alumnus David Baker. But what use is a fine CV when you are almost forgotten once they've handed you the gold watch to eternity?

Unhelpful words like "enigma" and "mysterious" seem to cling to Russell. In fairness to those who wrote about him, he was not above mystifying his own history and writing his biography, Stratusphunk: The Life and Works of George Russell (Jazzinternationale, 2020), required the separation of fact from mythology.

Yet, far from diminishing his story, what emerged was all the more fascinating and absorbing. His achievements were truly a tale of obstacles of race and class and ill-health overcome. His story told of his birth out of wedlock to an African American music student at Oberlin University and adoption by a working-class, childless African American couple in Cincinnati, Ohio. Russell never met either of his natural parents and, though he told writers and researchers that his natural father was a professor of music at Oberlin, there is no evidence to support this.

While Ohio and Cincinnati were not segregated states in a legal sense, they bordered Kentucky and Indiana both of which were. Segregation between the two communities on a de facto basis was the norm. That proximity certainly affected relationships between the communities and, inevitably, racism was part of Russell's lived experience growing up in the city, not least in school where he was one of a handful of black students. Yet, as a child and young adult, the predominantly African American community of Walnut Hills in which he grew up was as rich in culture as it was in a sense of communal and racial solidarity.

Other writers have often presumed some kind of genetic transmission of musical talent from mythical father to son, ignoring in the process the possibility of such influence from his clearly talented and very real mother. But the real story of Russell's early personal, social and musical development lies in his upbringing by his loving, adoptive parents in the community of Walnut Hills and the relationships he forged with young Black musicians—and white—in the neighbourhood and working as a drummer in the clubs of Cincinnati.

Leaving school in his mid-teens, he did spend two semesters at Wilberforce University but did not graduate. Though he always minimised what he gained from music lessons there with esteemed educator Dr. Anna Terry, by his early twenties Russell was employed by Earl Hines as an arranger in Chicago. New York beckoned and there he got to know most of the most forward-thinking musicians of the time. It was during a second hospitalisation for tuberculosis that Russell pondered an issue that Davis had posed for him concerning chords and scales and their relationship. It was from these deliberations that Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization emerged, a body of theory that he saw as his most important contribution to music and which he would continue to explore throughout his life.

Russell's career as a composer was slow to take off. His piece for Gillespie's band, "Cubano Be Cubano Bop," written, recorded and performed at Carnegie Hall in 1947 was the first of a clutch of pieces written for other artists including Artie Shaw, Buddy DeFranco and Lee Konitz. However, it was not until 1957 that Russell's first album as a leader, Jazz Workshop (RCA) appeared.

It remains one of the most distinctive, sui generis records in modern jazz. Featuring Bill Evans, Art Farmer and Hal McKusick, it represented a calling card for a musician and composer who would always follow his own muse, a fact confirmed by his next two albums, New York, N.Y. (Decca Records, 1959) and Jazz in the Space Age (Decca Records, 1960), big band sets that that corroborated his rare gifts as a composer and also his standing in the New York jazz fraternity.

While those who had studied with Russell or read his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization were few, the composer-theorist's ideas had permeated the American jazz community. If words like "enigma" should be used very cautiously in his case, that other well-worn and oft-misused metaphor éminence grise does seem to apply here, as Russell in many ways played Friar Francois Leclerc to Miles Davis's Richelieu. In practice, Davis became the most effective advocate for Russell's ideas and theories. It was as much through albums like Milestones (Columbia Records, 1958) and Kind of Blue (Columbia Records, 1959), as well as through the music of Coltrane, Nelson and Bill Evans, that the modal revolution heralded by the Lydian Chromatic Concept came to inform and shape modern jazz.

It was only at this point, in 1960 and aged 37, that Russell formed his own sextet. Those who passed through its ranks included trombonist Dave Baker, Dolphy, Steve Swallow, Don Ellis, John Gilmore and Thad Jones, but by all accounts, the group was largely a rehearsal/recording band and gigs were a rarity. Russell also liked to use his band as a kind of laboratory for exploring his musical theories, though that in no way suggests that that might have been arid, dry affairs. They all have their merits and are graced by fine ensemble and solo playing. Of the albums Russell released between 1960-1965, The Outer View (Riverside, 1962) with singer Sheila Jordan, Ezz-thetics (Riverside, 1961) with Dolphy and At Beethoven Hall (SABA, 1965) with Cherry stand with any small group records of the period.

But, if there were a way of ensuring he got overlooked, Russell would find it. He got paid upfront for these records rather than opt for a royalty cheque because it provided the food and rent money that allowed him to focus on his Lydian Chromatic Concept. During his career, there were also long periods when he did not have a regular band and rather than build a career with successive albums, there were gaps between bursts of activity. More than that, his leave-of-absence from 1965-1969 in Europe hardly helped his profile in the U.S. But then without those four years in Scandinavia, his music would not have made the great leap forward that justifies his inclusion alongside Ellington and Mingus as a jazz composer.

Sweden and Norway proved places of healing for Russell both mentally and physically. Physically, he was in a bad way following a seriously botched operation for stomach ulcers—the American surgeon had left a swab in Russell's stomach! Mentally, he left the U.S. deeply disturbed by some of the things happening politically and musically at home. Like so many African Americans, Russell and his work were treated with the deepest respect in Europe. He connected not only with those on the jazz scene but also with many of the avant-garde composers there like Arne Nordheim and Kåre Kolberg.

Of even more significance in this respect was his meeting with German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen in Denmark, when his sextet played before a performance of Stockhausen's "Gruppen" for three orchestras. The result of these connections can be heard, in particular, on Othello Ballet (Flying Dutchman, 1970), the big band version of Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature on The Essence of George Russell (Sonet, 1971) and on Living Time (Columbia Records, 1972) with Bill Evans.

Russell had returned to the U.S. in 1969, though continuing his associations with Norway and Sweden. When Bill Evans signed with Columbia, it fulfilled the pianist's dream of working for the label of Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. Columbia's Clive Davis was keen to push their new signing into new areas and were happy to accede to Evans' desire to work with Russell again. Living Time is one of the great missed opportunities in modern jazz. It was badly engineered and the sense of movement and force majeure that the composer achieved on the Swedish albums above was missing in action.

Evans even received letters from fans threatening never to buy another one of his records, Columbia did nothing to promote it and his time with the label came to a sorry end. That said, a later CD reissue by Sony in 2013 was remastered and though hard to find—and expensive—does much to retrieve the music's reputation, as does the later recording of the piece with the Anglo-American Living Time Orchestra on It's About Time (Label Bleu, 1996).

Teaching at NEC now took up much of Russell's time with ongoing research and writing related to the Lydian Chromatic Concept largely using up what was left. There were, however, flurries of recording activity during this period. Listen to the Silence (Concept, 1973) is a partly successful choral work with small jazz ensemble and with a libretto by Russell himself. Vertical Form VI (Soul Note, 1981) with the Swedish Radio Jazz Group is part through-composed and perhaps feels somewhat academic. Live in an American Time Spiral (Soul Note, 1983), on the other hand, is a triumph—if a minor one—and is graced by some remarkably fine playing by some of New York's finest, not least Marty Ehrlich on flute and alto, Ray Anderson on trombone, Doug Miller on tenor and Jerome Harris on guitar. As well as the long "Time Spiral," the record features performances of "D.C. Divertimento" from the Outer View album and "Ezz-thetic" with a standout alto solo from Ehrlich.

Around this point, Russell was commissioned to write a new piece by the Boston Jazz Coalition. As I note in Stratusphunk: The Life and Works of George Russell, The African Game (Blue Note 1985) was the record Russell was destined to make and the one that best sums up man, mind and music.

Recorded live at Emmanuel Church in Boston on June 18, 1983, it is credited for the first time to George Russell and the Living Time Orchestra. If his music had contemplated the heavens before, now he turned his attention to the entire history of humankind. Russell told author Francis Davis at the time, "People assume The African Game is about black evolution but it's not. It's about human evolution because we're all Africans at the core, when you trace these things back."

The music is simultaneously profoundly philosophical and highly moving. There is a density and intensity to the writing, as always, and the different parts of the work shift constantly. Again, percussion and rhythm are key features in the architecture of the work and Russell incorporated into the performance five Cuban batá drummers. But the aspect that most impresses is the way the solos so clearly reflect Russell's ideas and yet are also so powerfully expressive.

Blue Note boss, Bruce Lundvall heard a tape of the performance and signed Russell as the first artist on the revived label. This should have been the honour to match them all. If that did not turn out to be the case, it did lead to one of Russell's finest recordings and to a very good companion album from the same concert, So What. (Blue Note, 1986). As well as a second version of "Time Spiral," that album features the Miles Davis's tune that uses the trumpeter's solo rather than the tune and with which Russell would close his concerts from that point onwards.

With the help of John Cumming, director of UK promoters Serious Music, Russell formed the Anglo-American Living Time Orchestra touring the UK and mainland Europe on numerous occasions from the mid-'80s up to the final tour in 2002. This was, perhaps, the happiest and most secure period in Russell's long career. A mix of experienced and younger players gave their all to his music, he revelled in their company and European audiences embraced the music of a man whose life and work ran through the labyrinth of jazz history like Ariadne's thread.

Russell might have devoted much of his working life to the Lydian Chromatic Concept but he loved being on stage and hearing the crowd get off on his music. Perhaps there were missed opportunities along the way. There were certainly times when he might have made other career choices, but one never got the sense that he regretted anything. George Russell was truly a one-off. Was he a genius? Now, there's another overused word. Listen to his music and judge for yourselves.



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