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Why George Russell Will Always Live in Time


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A measure of just how underrated a musician he was in his lifetime is reflected in the fact that even three days after he passed on most of the major publications had not even reported his death, much less celebrated his life in the glowing terms that he so richly deserved. Perhaps this was because oddly enough he may have spent a lifetime mostly in the quietude of musical intellectualism rather than in its practice. That is, after all how most may ultimately remember George Russell, born June 23, 1923—died July 27, 2009. He did author the most important work in jazz, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization (Concept Publishing, 1953; Concept Publishing Ed. 1959), which is odd, because George Russell just happens to also rank as one of the most important composers, arrangers, conductors—not just a musical intellectual—in the history of jazz. Listen to his peers. Read what they have said. Men like Gunther Schuller and Gil Evans, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, David Baker and scores of others. But trust fickle audiences and big record labels to have given him the short shrift in his lifetime.

George Russell wrote one of the earliest Afro-Cuban-Jazz classics, "Cubana-Be/Cubana-Bop," which was immortalized by Dizzy Gillespie. And the great conguero, Chano Pozo glorified it with a solo that will forever stick in the memory. But the song was a majestic piece of musical architecture that even Diz and Chano Pozo would agree that though Pozo's solo was such a lesson in drumming, nothing could detract from the melding of styles: the electrifying chopped rhythms of bebop and the beautifully cadenced, calculated stutter of Afro-Cuban polyrhythms.

That was in 1947. So although Russell did contribute one of the most important books in jazz theory, he matched that up amply and more and earlier too, with some exquisite music, "Cubana-Be/Cubana-Bop" and the later "A Bird in Igor's Yard" (1949), which took an impressionistic look at how the bebop of Bird and the ultra-radical concepts of Igor Stravinsky could become not-so-strange-bedfellows. And these were just the start of a glorious songbook.

The Theory

Still it pays to remember the theory. Russell's historic book marked a major advancement in jazz: the beginning of the Modal period that was to influence men like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and later Ornette Coleman as well. Jazz musicians had been improvising on chord changes for decades before, whereas modal compositions emphasized more linear modes (like melody) rather than vertical ones (Chordal).

Russell's theory had united the Lydian—one of several ancient modes, which is a scale of unity for the tonic major chord—with a modern use of chromatics, so instead of a key signature dictating and limiting the musician's choice of notes, the tonal center of the piece of music became its center of gravity; the harmonic, chordal richness was still available but now the choice of notes became wider, almost limitless.

This concept—that melodic ideas assume sectional autonomy, independent of any harmonic progression—may have inadvertently begun with Lester Young. But Russell captured it in its entirety and made it stick with compositions to match. No wonder that men like John Lewis, Art Farmer and Ornette Coleman, among others, called it the single most important advance in Jazz theory.

Their paths crossed and forever changed the jazz geography of New York in the 1950s. So George Russell was also associated with Gil Evans. But if anything, Russell's seminal work was a big influence on the thing of Evans. And both men conceived their music on infinitely larger aural canvases. However, because of the complexity of Russell's work, they were less easy to grasp than Evans' music. Consequently Russell may have got the shorter end of the straw when it came to documentation and representation on major record labels in the US. That did not stop him.

Debut as leader

George Russell's musical debut as a bandleader came with the 1956 release of Jazz Workshop (Koch Records). The record featured some of his most enduring songs, "Ezz-thetics," "Concerto for Billy the Kid" and "Ye Hypocrite Ye Beelzebub." At the time it seemed inconceivable that this record was made by a septet, but it actually was. Art Farmer played trumpet, Bill Evans was on piano, there were two bassists and three drummers—Russell himself played chromatic drums and Osie Johnson was on wood drums. In 1959 he made New York, New York (Impulse) with John Coltrane, Max Roach and Evans. The record is a magnificent example of composition, arranging and performance. By 1960, Russell's adventurous spirit took flight. Jazz in the Space Age (Decca/GRP). This featured the two pianos of Bill Evans and Paul Bley together with a large ensemble. The music was made to order and its highlight was the three-part suite, "Chromatic Universe," an ambitious work that mixed punctiliously-written parts and free improvisation. In a second session for this record, Russell added trumpeter, Marky Markowitz, valve trombonist, Bob Brookmeyer and the slow, mysterious, "Waltz from Outer Space," which also incorporated an oriental sounding theme. This record represents some of Russell's finest work.

Throughout the 1960s George Russell was constantly changing, learning, evolving in his music and was also surrounding himself with extra-ordinary musicians. It was during this period that he produced two of his landmark recordings. The first was Outer Thought (OJC, 1960). A pivotal work, the record featured the art of Eric Dolphy on alto saxophone and bass clarinet, David Baker and Garnett Brown on trombones and two bassists—Chuck Israels and Steve Swallow. The drummers were Pete La Roca and Ivory Joe Hunter. This date also featured a George Russell discovery, the amazing Sheila Jordan on vocals. The group made splendid versions of "Ezz-Thetics" and "Stratusphunk."

The second record was Ezz-Thetics (OJC, 1961). This was a truly classic record, with three Russell originals as well as extraordinary versions of "'Round Midnight," (with a jaw-dropping performance by Eric Dolphy), Miles Davis' "Nardis" and David Baker's "Honesty." A year later came The Stratus Seekers (OJC) with "Blues in Orbit," later recorded by Gil Evans. Russell's musical catalogue also included The Outer View, (OJC, 1962) on which he absolutely transformed Charlie Parker's "Au Privave," a challenge to his musicians to stretch beyond their wildest limits. There was also a most haunting version of "You are my Sunshine," by Sheila Jordan.

Europe and after

But in the early 1960s, disillusionment had set in and the composer moved to Europe. Here he taught music and performed, gathering together, teaching and influencing some of the most important musicians there. Jan Garbarek was one such musician and nominated him as one of his most important influences in his own playing and composing. Russell also celebrated his years in Europe with some of his mightiest work. At Beethoven Hall (Saba, 1965) was one such record, which brought the composer together with cornetist Don Cherry. Dipping in to his Lydian concepts in Europe, Russell turned in extraordinary versions of "Bag's Groove," "Confirmation" and "'Round About Midnight." Then he turned his attention to something even more daunting and produced Othello Ballet Suite and Electronic Sonata No. 1 (Flying Dutchman, 1968). This compelling work combined the jazz, classical idioms with Shakespeare. A year later he produced Electronic Sonata, 1968 (Soulnote, 1969). This two-part, 14-event piece featured a very young Jan Garbarek on tenor saxophone and Terje Rypdal on guitars. And The Essence of George Russell (1966) featured the first big band version of "Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature."

The 70s were marked by more teaching Trip to Prillaguri (ECM, 1973), more learning and more critical acclaim, especially in Europe. First with the ECM debut and later also with Listen to the Silence. A Mass for Our Time (Concept, 1974); and Vertical Form 6 (Soulnote, 1976).

By now, George Russell was entering a new stage in his career, one that was to characterize his later—and perhaps—his most important music conceptually. This was first heard on Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature (Strata East, 1980) was released in the US. This was an ambitious, elaborate composition and it blended bebop, free improvisation, Asian musical elements and the blues, electronics—including tapes and previously recorded performances. The collision was a brilliant—some say a historic—recording that ranks with Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz (Blue Note, 1959). Then came Live in an American Time Spiral (1982), a Village Vanguard recording that was a prelude to his next enormous work.

But absolutely nothing could prepare audiences for The African Game (Blue Note, 1983). This was Russell's Magnum opus. A highly eclectic, nine-event 45-minute suite for augmented big band that depicted the dawn of human civilization from—as we now know—the correct, African perspective. The work attempts, successfully, to embrace an enormous world of sound in an open, colorful manner, with several degrees of timbral unity and emotion, to keep the various idioms from flying out of control. This is a celebrated recording by Russell—his first in 13 years, made with his latest large ensemble, The Living Time Orchestra, a unit that was to be, with personnel changes, his last and greatest big band. That record was followed quickly by So What (Blue Note, 1983). Here too, the Living Time Orchestra responds to Russell's direction with the same kick that typified his Promethean career that began in the 50s and also featured one of his last long compositions, "Time Spiral."

Then again there was a long period of inactivity, before Russell made the first of three visits to the UK. Between 1986 and 1988, he performed and put together London Concerts Vols 1 & 2 (Label Bleu, 1989). Then the recording trail went cold again. But nothing really could prevent George Russell from staying close to the music he so loved. When Gunther Schuller had persuaded him to return to the US in 1969, he did not simply come back. He joined Schuller at the New England Conservatory of Music. He played festivals and he broadcasted in North America and in Europe. His last record was the gargantuan 80th Birthday Concert (Concept Publishing, 2005). Too bad he was stricken by Alzheimer's towards the end of his life, incapacitated not unlike that other compositional genius, Charles Mingus. But it may be that George Russell may not be done after all. Perhaps he will celebrate with a chair in the sky. While down here, we in the world will wait with bated breath.

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