GEORGE RUSSELL: THE EARLY YEARS
THE RCA VICTOR JAZZ WORKSHOP - THE ARRANGERS (Bluebird 6471-2-RB) 
THE GEORGE RUSSELL SMALLTET - JAZZ WORKSHOP (Bluebird 6467-2-RB) 
JAZZ IN THE SPACE AGE (Decca/ChessMates GRD-826) 
George Russell is one of the key players in jazz's coming of age in the fifties. Although most of the glory has gone to his compatriot, Gil Evans (whose association with Miles Davis had much to do with that), Evans was at heart more an arranger of others' music (his own compositions are few and far between; he is best remembered for his startlingly fresh arrangements of others' compositions), while Russell's true strength was in his own compositions. Russell's music sounded like no one else's.Originally a drummer who came to New York with the Benny Carter band, Russell was blown away by the drumming of Max Roach and decided to regroup, turning to writing -- music composition. He sold his first composition to Carter, and then to Earl Hines, and -- back again in New York in the mid-forties -- to the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, which recorded his two-part "Cubana Be" and "Cubana Bop." Later he replaced Gil Evans as an arranger for the Claude Thornhill band (generally regarded as a precursor to the so-called Miles Davis Nontet -- which was actually an arrangers' band fronted by Davis -- which produced the revolutionary 1949 BIRTH OF THE COOL sessions) where he met a young alto saxophonist who had taken over Lee Konitz's chair, a fellow named Hal McKusick. McKusick recorded a number of overlooked but important albums in the fifties for Decca and RCA Victor, drawing heavily upon people like Evans and Russell and Jimmy Giuffre for material.
RCA A&R man Jack Lewis encouraged McKusick to make an album which was released as HAL McKUSICK - JAZZ WORKSHOP. Its eleven tracks were composed by George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Gil Evans, Johnny Mandel, Manny Albam and Al Cohn. By far the most important of these composers were the first three. But only five tracks -- those by Russell and Evans -- made it onto the compilation CD released by Bluebird (a revival of a very old RCA subsidiary label) as THE RCA VICTOR JAZZ WORKSHOP - THE ARRANGERS in 1988. (The remaining 12 tracks on the CD are from a never-released JAZZ WORKSHOP album by John Carisi -- another contributor to THE BIRTH OF THE COOL -- also recorded in 1956, and from the mid-sixties albums of trombonist Rod Levitt. The Carisi tracks are surprisingly mainstream -- perhaps the reason they were never previously released -- and quite unlike the more impressive side he contributed to Gil Evans' Impulse album, INTO THE HOT. That album was actually, as originally released, the work of Carisi, who composed and arranged all of its first side, and of Cecil Taylor, who composed and arranged side two, Evans' role being that of producer and front man. The CD of INTO THE HOT alternates the Carisi and Taylor tracks, unfortunately. The Rod Levitt Orchestra tracks come from a decade later, and are culled from two different albums. They have some appeal, but as a whole this compilation CD is weak and ill-conceived.)
The CD opens with Gil Evans' two contributions (both his own compositions) and those are followed by George Russell's "Miss Clara," "The Day John Brown Was Hanged," and "Lydian Lullaby." The name of the latter piece is based on Russell's unique theory of composition, which he called his Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization. This Concept involved modal tone-rows and what amounted to a fresh new musical vocabulary, uniquely well suited to jazz of a challenging nature. McKusick is quoted as saying, "Then there was a guy that nobody would touch for some crazy reason, and that was George Russell. I was really excited by his concepts and thought the world ought to hear what he was up to." (Another who shared that belief was Teddy Charles, who would tap Russell for contributions to his TENTET album, reviewed elsewhere here.)
All of Russell's contributions are strong, but "John Brown" was the most ambitious, a seven-minute suite in three sections. It uses folk themes but, to quote John Wilson's original liner notes, "It is a product of Russell's conviction that a serious jazz work of contrasting emotional levels, ranging from the deeply spiritual to the satirical, could be successfully composed for and performed by a four-piece group with no loss of emotional impact." That four piece group was made up of McKusick on alto sax, Barry Galbraith on guitar, Milt Hinton on bass, and Osie Johnson on drums, with George Russell sitting in also on drums. The basic quartet performed "Lydian Lullaby," while trumpet, trombone, tuba and baritone sax were added for "Miss Clara." The effect was to create an angular, semi-contrapuntal chamber jazz.That same year (1956) RCA recorded a JAZZ WORKSHOP album by Russell. Here Russell led a sextet consisting of Art Farmer on trumpet, Hal McKusick on alto sax, Bill Evans on piano, Barry Galbraith on guitar, Milt Hinton or Teddy Kotick on bass, and Joe Harris, or Paul Motian or Osie Johnson on drums -- with Russell himself playing boobams, which are tuned drums. This album was a direct followup to his contributions to McKusick's album, and the overall chamber-jazz feeling is the same. This was George Russell's first album. It was also his first chance to record himself a composition he had originally given to Lee Konitz years earlier, "Ezz-Thetic," dedicated to boxer Ezred Charles, and "Russell's most played piece, a fiendish restructuring of 'Love For Sale,' and by far the most conventional jazz tune on the album," according to CD annotator Steve Elman. The CD has two bonus tracks not on the LP, alternate takes of "Ballad of Hix Blewitt," and "Concerto For Billy The Kid." The music on this album is tight, controlled, and closely focused. Every instrument counts.
(If you want to hear more music closely resembling the music in these Jazz Workshops, you'll seek it in vain on subsequent George Russell albums, but his friend, John Benson Brooks, made a worthy followup in his ALABAMA CONCERTO, an album-length suite performed by Julian "Cannonball" Adderley on alto sax, Art Farmer on trumpet, Brooks on piano, Barry Galbraith on guitar and Milt Hinton on bass -- no drums -- for Riverside in 1958. The group is almost the same used by Russell, and the music is built on deconstructed southern black folk themes. I like it a lot. The album is available on CD from Original Jazz Classics [OJCCD-1779-2].)
In 1959 Decca president Milt Gabler, long involved in jazz, signed Russell to his label. Decca subsequently released four albums by Russell, only the first two of which have made it to CD. The four albums were
The first sign of Russell's assimilation into the jazz mainstream was
However JAZZ IN THE SPACE AGE -- despite its title and cheesy packaging (taken straight from the original LP) -- is a masterpiece, and a triumph for not only George Russell but its two principal players, pianists Bill Evans and Paul Bley. Released in 1960, this was the Lydian Concept's last hurrah -- after which Russell appeared to give up on serious composition and turn to loose blowing performances more in step with contemporary jazz. (Not that he hasn't released a great many more albums in consequence, all of which have their own virtues.) Significantly, Russell became a pianist in those groups, but his approach to the piano was sort of like a wimpy version of Cecil Taylor, noodling around the edges and in the background of the music, and supplying little harmonic or rhythmic support for the band or soloists and rarely soloing himself.
Russell's strength was always conceptual and compositional, and this comes to full fruition with JAZZ IN THE SPACE AGE. Although a large orchestra (in jazz terms) is used in places on the album, the center stage is reserved for two pianos on which Bill Evans and Paul Bley play in simultaneous improvisations, in multiple (and evolving) unusual time signatures, and unusual (unique to the Lydian Concept) modalities. The effect is thrilling. "Chromatic Universe" -- the main vehicle for these two-piano tour de forces -- is split into three parts, opening and closing the album and occupying the final track of side one of the LP. Three other compositions, "Dimensions," "The Lydiot," and "Waltz From Outer Space," are interposed, but the overall effect is of one album-length work, a unified suite, which runs just over 42 minutes. Because much of the two-piano work is "freely" improvised, the strength of the finished work rests largely on Evans and Bley. Evans was by then a tested and known talent, whose solo on Russell's "All About Rosie," on the Columbia MODERN JAZZ CONCERT album (reviewed elsewhere as part of THE BIRTH OF THE THIRD STREAM) had, along with his own Riverside albums, solidly established him as a jazz artist. Bley, who made his debut in the early fifties on Charles Mingus's Debut label, and was then less well known, proved himself Evans' equal. Their poly- (or pan-) tonal improvisations are at once intellectually challenging and viscerally satisfying -- a rare feat indeed. And the unusual time signatures (5/2 was used a lot) prefigured those of the Don Ellis Big Band in the late sixties (Ellis played trumpet with Russell's sextet in 1961).
JAZZ IN THE SPACE AGE was first issued on CD in
Both Decca albums are now easily available on CD, but the Bluebird CDs may not be, although I believe they are still in the catalog, since they were released more than ten years ago. THE ARRANGERS is germane here only for its third, fourth and fifth tracks, and is an uneven album, overall. But the SMALLTET album is highly recommended, as is JAZZ IN THE SPACE AGE.
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