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Why George Russell Will Always Live in Time

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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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.


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