Avoiding the worst trappings of New Age music yet leaning to its atmospheric ambience, guitarist Ray Russell's 1987 album Childscape , now released in remastered and expanded form as Why Not Now , is as interesting for what it's not as for what it is.
It's too intrusive and insistent to be ambient; too ethereal to be considered fusion by its more traditional definition; and too structured to be jazz, even though solos abound albeit in a context that has little to do with the virtuosity that Russell clearly possesses. Why Not Now rests comfortably on the edge of all. Some reference points can be found by way of precedence in the soundscapes of guitarist Bill Nelson and David Torn (albeit less idiosyncratic), the instrumental music of David Sylvian, and the overdubbed experiments of early Mike Oldfield, but it's just the kind of album that could fall between the cracks and, in fact, did just that when first released.
Russell first came to prominence in the mid-'60s as part of the John Barry Seven and Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames, going on to work with British jazz/rock progenitor Nucleus , amongst others. He always seemed to remain under the radar, even as he amassed a significant body of work with artists as diverse as Tina Turner, James Galway and Maria Muldaur. Whatever reputation he had as a solo artist was related to work that was jazz-centric, albeit with more than a small nod to the fusion camp.
Why Not Now finds Russell with a large cast of supporting characters, including trumpeter/keyboardist Mark Isham, long-time musical associate and bassist Mo Foster, and even noted arranger/composer/pianist Gil Evans, whose music Russell played as a member of The British Orchestra in the early '80s. Russell even covers Evans' "The Pan Piper," originally found on the classic Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration Sketches of Spain. But Russell's take is more atmospheric, with synthesizers and layers of guitar creating a rich audioscape. Evans also plays on the even more unworldly "Sketches of Gil," completed shortly before Evans' death.
Elsewhere Russell creates richly textured soundscapes that are as much, if not more, about evocation as they are the act of performance. Russell uses an arsenal of guitars and somewhat dated synthesizer textures to build compositions that are lyrical and largely hypnotic. Even the four bonus tracks, three of which feature another long-time musical partner drummer Simon Phillips, maintain a sense of space and trance, although they ultimately resolve into rhythmically-charged solo segments for more overtly fusion-based musings from Russell.
Angel Air's series of Russell reissues is a welcome effort which, if there's any justice, ought to bring his name to broader visibility. Certainly Russell, as much a composer/arranger as guitarist, has a surprisingly varied body of work that deserves exposure, with Why Not Now providing a compelling view of but one aspect of his respectable talent.
Track Listing: Outland; Prelude 1; Pour Me a Fish; Blue Shoes - No Dance; Lunday Island; The Pan Piper; Childscape; Point Perfect; Prelude 2; If Only; Murmurs in Reverse; Sketches of Gil Bonus Tracks: Avian; No Step; Snow (A Passing Phase); A Table Near the Band
Personnel: Ray Russell (electric guitar, acoustic guitar, classical guitar, tenor guitar, guitar synth, keyboards, percussion, piano, kalimba, log drum), Mark Isham (trumpet, flugelhorn, keyboards), Mo Foster (bass guitar, fretless bass, 5-string bass, double-bass), Frank Ricotti (percussion), Tony Hymas (piano, bass synthesizer), Gil Evans (Fender Rhodes piano), Simon Phillips (drums), Ray Warleigh (bass clarinet), Stuart Brooks (trumpet), Tommy Eyre (keyboards), Iain Ballamy (tenor saxophone), Gary Kettel (percussion), Tony Roberts (soprano saxophone), George Stanley Baldwin (rattle, shaker)
I was first exposed to jazz while working overseas in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I would listen to the Voice of America on the radio and they had a nightly jazz program on at 10:00pm. I learned a lot about jazz listening to this program. I also had a friend who listened to real jazz by artists like Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp. On my way home from Africa I landed in New York and had the opportunity to see the George Adams/Don Pullen quartet at the Village Vanguard as well as Kenny Barron and Ron Carter at another club, and was in heaven.