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Why George Russell Will Always Live in Time

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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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.

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