© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“One of the musical tracks I often use in lectures is the 1956 recording “Concerto for Billy the Kid” by the composer and orchestra leader George Russell, who died this summer. Most people – even those who love jazz – have never heard it, yet it is an amazing performance, not five minutes long, which adapts piano concerto format to a sextet. The arrangement is based on a series of congruous scales or modes, rather than the usual harmonies, with the result that the band radiates a rattling dissonance while sounding far larger than it is. Most of the melodic figures are short, pulsing fragments, and they swing like mad. The highlight is an exhilarating piano cadenza created to introduce the as-yet-unknown Bill Evans (the eponymous Billy the Kid). In this section, Russell had Evans improvise on the chords of an old standard, and he hammers the keys as though his fingers were dancing mallets.
This recording invariably dazzles audiences, partly because it doesn’t sound a day older than tomorrow.”
- Gary Giddins, Jazz author and critic
“The challenge which is presented to the composer of modern music who has been traditionally educated is that of either refining and reshaping his traditionally learned techniques, or constructing new techniques that will enable him to capture and enhance the vital improvisational forces so abundantly inherent in much of the good music of today. To impose old orders and old techniques upon vigorous and willful young music is to burden and stifle it rather than to channel and lead it and be led by it.”
- George Russell, Jazz Composer, Arranger and Theorist
Every so often, I enjoy developing and sharing a piece about what’s going on in the music; a kind of follow along using the timings that accompany videos as the basis for keying your ears into what I’m hearing.
I mean, at some point, words become a poor substitute for describing what’s occurring in the music, but less so perhaps if what they are describing is actually linked to the music as it is playing.
Recently I came across a segment in a book about Jazz by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux which is designed to serve as a textbook on the subject that did my work for me. Incidentally, the title of the book on the subject of Jazz is just that - Jazz - and its publisher W.W. Norton has made it available both as a trade edition and in a format with online interactive features.
The specific recording that they’ve annotated is Concerto for Billy the Kid which was composed by George Russell and appears his 1956 RCA The Jazz Workshop LP.
I have position the video below their timings and breakdowns and you can use the pause feature on the video and scroll their written explanation of the actual music under discussion.
“Among the major jazz figures in the bop and postbop eras, George Russell [1923-2009] is singular on two counts. First, he worked exclusively as a composer-bandleader, not as an instrumentalist; second, he devoted much of his life to formulating an intricate musical theory, published in 1953 and revised in 2001 as George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, Volume One: The Art and Science of Tonal Gravity.” …
Russell was held in great esteem by the most advanced jazz musicians of the 1950s, and he surrounded himself with many of them, including John Coltrane and Max Roach. But he also had a good ear for raw talent. His most influential discovery was the pianist Bill Evans, whom he eventually introduced to Davis. Evans had appeared on a few record sessions yet was virtually unknown when Russell recruited him for Jazz Workshop. To showcase his immense talent, Russell conceived "Concerto for Billy the Kid." Evans's rigorous solo, coming to a head in his whirling stop-time cadenza, is far removed from the more meditative approach that later became his signature, but it remains one of his most compelling performances.
Working with only six musicians in this piece, Russell creates tremendous harmonic density. His clashing scales give the performance a dramatically modernistic edge, though he also uses a standard chord progression (from the 1942 Raye-DePaul standard "I’ll Remember April," an enduring favorite among jazz musicians) for the Evans sequence. In creating a capacious harmonic landscape that obliterates the usual tonal centers, Russell makes his sextet sound like a much larger ensemble. For all the dissonances, rhythmic change-ups, and fragmented melodies, the piece swings with a pure-jazz elan. The inventiveness of the composer and his soloists never wavers. After more than half a century, "Concerto for Billy the Kid" sounds not only fresh but avant-garde, in the truest sense of the term. It would sound modern if it were written and recorded today.
CONCERTO FOR BILLY THE KID
By George Russell
Art Farmer, trumpet; Hal McKusick, alto saxophone; Bill Evans, piano; Barry Galbraith, electric guitar; Milt Hinton, bass; Paul Motian, drums
LABEL: Victor LPM 1372; The Complete Bluebird Recordings (Lone Hill Jazz LHJ 10177)
STYLE: modernist small-group composition
FORM: original, including 32-bar AA' and 48-bar ABA
0:00 - The drums begin by playing a Latin groove: a syncopated rhythm on the cymbals alternates with the bass drum on the main beats and the snare drum on the backbeat.
0:05 - Above the groove, two horns (muted trumpet and alto saxophone) play
two independent lines in dissonant counterpoint. The rhythms are disjointed and unpredictable.
0:09 - The horns become stuck on a dissonant interval—the major second, or
whole step. They move this interval up and down.
0:11 - Hinton enters on bass, doubled by piano, repeating two notes a
half step apart. (This bass line will remain in place for most of the introduction.)
0:15 - The horns play a descending riff that ends, once again, on a major second. This riff repeats at unpredictable intervals.
0:18 - The texture is thickened by a new line, played by the electric guitar.
0:24 - The horns switch to a new key and begin a new ostinato that clashes, polyrhythmically, with the meter. Evans (piano) and Galbraith (guitar) improvise countermelodies.
0:34 - The horns begin a new ostinato in call and response with the guitar.
0:44 - The ostinato changes slightly, fitting more securely into the measure. Evans adds complicated responses.
0:58 - Farmer (trumpet) removes his mute. The ostinato becomes a more engaging Latin riff, forming a four-bar pattern. Underneath it, Hinton plays a syncopated bass line.
1:11 - In a dramatic cadence, the harmony finally reaches the tonic.
1:13 - The drums improvise during a short two-bar break.
Chorus 1 (32 bars, AA')
1:15 A The rhythm section sets up a new Latin groove, with an unexpected syncopation on one beat. Evans plays a peculiar twisting line in octaves on piano, moving dissonantly through the chord structure.
1:22 - Over one chord, the piano line is more strikingly dissonant.
1:28 A’ As the chord progression begins over again, Evans's melody continues to dance above the harmonies.
1:42 A The horns repeat Evans's line note for note. Underneath, Evans plays a
montuno—a syncopated chordal pattern typically found in Latin accompaniments, locking into the asymmetrical bass line.
2:11 - The walking-bass line rises and falls chromatically, while melodic
themes are tossed between the instruments.
2:21 - The band returns to the Latin groove and the melodic ideas previously
heard in the introduction.
Chorus 3 (48-bar ABA, each section 16 bars)
2:28 A This new chord progression—based on "I'll Remember April"—begins
with an extended passage of stop-time. Evans improvises for four bars in a single melodic line.
2:31 - The band signals the next chord with a single sharp gesture while Evans continues to improvise.
2:35 - The band enters every two bars, with Hinton filling in on bass.
2:42 B The band's chords are irregular, often syncopated.
2:56 A Evans's improvisations are so rhythmically slippery that the band mis-plays its next stop-time entrance.
3:08 - A walking bass reestablishes a more conventional groove.
3:09 A Evans plays a full chorus solo, featuring his right hand only.
3:23 B He distorts the meter by relentlessly repeating a polyrhythmic triplet
3:37 A He switches to a series of bluesy gestures.
3:50 - The chorus is interrupted when the bass (doubled by piano) suddenly
establishes a new triple meter. Against this, the horns play a dissonant line, harmonized in fourths (quartal chords).
3:55 A We return to the piano solo, a full five bars into this chorus.
3:58 - Evans joins with the drummer in playing sharp accents (or "kicks") on
harshly dissonant chords.
4:05 B Farmer takes a trumpet solo.
4:12 - Underneath, McCusick (alto saxophone) adds a background line, harmonizing with the guitar's chords.
4:19 A McCusick plays a melody previously heard in the introduction (at 0:34).
4:26 - The trumpet suddenly joins the saxophone in quartal harmonies, fitting
obliquely over the harmonic progression.
4:31 - As the bass drops out, the instruments revisit ideas from the beginning
of the introduction.
4:36 - The guitar begins a final upward flurry.
4:39- Evans plays the final gesture on piano.
The Jazz Workshop album which contains Concerto for Billy The Kid among its 12 tracks, received glowing reviews.
Critic Leonard Feather wrote of Russell, "Such men must be guarded with care and watched with great expectations."