If you haven't been closely following the British jazz scene, you likely won't have heard of guitarist Ray Russell. In some ways he's simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. All too briefly replacing Chris Spedding in trumpeter Ian Carr's Nucleus, his more forward-thinking playing with that seminal jazz/rock outfit has only come to light recently on Live in Bremen (Cuneiform, 2003).
While Russell ultimately evolved into a chameleon-like session player, working with everyone from Tina Turner and Robert Plant to Andy Williams, he never turned his back on his more experimental side. Numerous experiences informed the guitarist's development, but his 1980s relationship with composer/arranger/bandleader Gil Evans was what perhaps most significantly impacted his life. With Evans passing away in 1988, Russell's Goodbye Svengali may seem a tribute a little late in coming, but the homage is so heartfelt, so all-encompassing of Evans' genius that it proves the old adage that some things are worth the wait.
Russell and two long-time collaborators, bassist Mo Foster and drummer/keyboardist Gary Husband, are touring to support the album, but the disc itself is broader in scope. With numerous guests including Evans' son Miles on trumpet and contrabassist Anthony Jackson, it's an expansively emotional panegyric that ranges from evocative and introspective to powerfully extroverted. But in all cases, perhaps more than any of Russell's previous solo albums, the material lets Russell show his remarkably wide range of stylistic aptitude.
Russell's free-ranging "Everywhere opens the album and immediately establishes his imaginative capabilities in more abstruse harmonic contexts. His tone may suggest fusion, as does Robin Aspland's Fender Rhodes, but the eleven-minute piece is more about unencumbered interaction than muscularity; bassist Amy Baldwin and drummer Ralph Salmins are remarkably elastic and responsive. Husband's equally lengthy "Prayer to the Sun/The Fashion Police begins ethereally with acoustic guitar and keyboards, but it rapidly morphs into a powerful fusion piece showcasing Russell's formidable Hendrix-meets-Sharrock-meets-Beck chops, even as it moves, like "Everywhere, into less confined territory.
Elsewhere Russell is more pensive. If the atmospheric, yet lyrical "Without a Trace and "So Far Away are melancholy remembrances in an ECM vein, and his solo piece "Wailing Wall is abstractly elegiac, then the title track is a eulogy beautifully incorporating both the rich voicings that made Evans so distinctive, and the sense of unfettered and almost subconscious-driven exploration that made him so vital.
Surprisingly, if there's a misstep on the record, it's a version of Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat that finds Russell adding a new guitar part to a recently-unearthed outtake from a 1980s session with Evans. While it's an undeniably strong performance, it feels somehow stylistically out of placeanachronistic and creepily like having someone attending their own funeral.
Still, that's a small quibble for an album that succeeds not only as an intensely personal tribute, but also as a 66-minute introduction to a guitarist whose reputation amongst musicians is unquestionable, but whose lack of visibility with the larger listening public is nothing short of criminal.
Everywhere; Without a Trace; Goodbye Svengali; Goodbye Pork Pie Hat; Wailing Wall; Prayer to
the Sun/The Fashion Police; So Far Away; Now Herre's a Thing; Afterglow; Blaize.
Ray Russell: electric guitar, EBow, acoustic guitar, 7-string guitar, keyboards, classical guitar,
Roland guitar synthesizer; Robin Aspland: Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3 organ (1,8); Amy
Baldwin: double bass (1,3,8); Gil Evans: keyboards (4); Miles Evans: trumpet (3); Mo Foster:
bass guitar (6); Gary Husband: drums (3,6), keyboards (6, 9); Tony Hymas: keyboards (10);
Anthony Jackson: contrabass (10); Phil Peskett: keyboards (2); Simon Phllips: drums (10);
Ralph Salmins: drums (1,8).
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