Thursday, April 28, 2016

George Russell - The 1986 Jazz Journal International Interview

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

As regular readers of the blog may have noticed, mine is not an interactive blog. Or, to put it another way, I don’t place a lot of emphasis on communications with readers, not that I don’t appreciate each and every one of them.

I take this approach for a lot of reasons: [1] the blogging platform that I use is not conducive to exchanging messages; [2] I am not a Jazz “authority” per se and what I write about reflects my personal interests and is not intended to sway opinions or establish preferences; [3] it takes a great deal of effort to research and prepare these profiles which leaves me very little discretionary time for exchanging communications with readers.

However, occasionally messages do reach me such as the one that follows from Andy Wasserman and they serve as reminders that there is work to be done on my part in terms of further investigation to develop more in-depth profiles about the music in general and certain of its makers in particular.

In this case, the additional work in question concerns the arranger-composer and music theoretician George Russell whose pioneering work with modes as published in his Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organization amplified their use in Jazz and in popular music as an alternative to musical scales and chords.

Although The Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organization work has been available since 1953, sadly, as Andy points out in his correspondence, George’s methodology is still too little used as a cornerstone to Jazz education.

In the coming weeks the blog will feature interviews with and articles about George Russell that have appeared in Down Beat, Jazz Journal and Jazz Review as conducted or written by such eminent Jazz scholars as Dom Cerulli, Burt Korall, Phil Wilson, Bob Blumenthal and Stan Wooley. Hopefully, these posting will help contribute to a greater awareness and understanding of his work.

I have also re-posted to the blog’s sidebar, an earlier piece that I prepared on George and Jon Hendricks’ tone poem New York, New York which is the piece that Andy refers to in the following message.

Dear Mr. Cerra, The article you wrote on George Russell and his "New York, N.Y." is the best article I've found on him and his music. I was his editorial assistant for 30 years, his substitute teacher at New England Conservatory from 1980-1982 when his Living Time Orchestra was on tour, had the honor of writing the foreword to the latest published edition (2001) of his "Lydian Chromatic Concept" and is one of only a handful of musicians he formally selected and certified to teach his work.

Everything you wrote is honest and true and much appreciated for its insight. I created a Tribute on my website to Mr. Russell that has recently been updated with the fact that I was first introduced to his music by a fellow Jazz musician who gave me the "New York, N.Y" album. Being a native New Yorker myself, I was changed from listening to that record. Out of respect for your copyright, I wanted to let you know that I put a credit to you and your Jazz Profiles site in a line of text on the page, with a link to your article on your Blog. Also wanted to make sure is OK with you that I also have a link within my site for the text only from your article copied/pasted into a PDF doc, with all copyright information intact. I did not alter a single word or make any edits. It appears alongside the link to your Blog for those people who might find that doc easier to read or more quick to access. If you feel that this additional version of your article is not in line with your copyright for this article, I'll remove it immediately.

Now that George Russell has been gone for almost 7 years, I'm still amazed at how little recognition he has received, and how almost every Jazz Department still ignores the importance of "The Concept." Your article is something I hope more people will read now that the links are on my site and it can help promote his legacy and your excellent writing. The link to the page I'm referring to is this: Perhaps you and I can communicate further about George if you wish.

With respect, Andy Wasserman”

Let’s turn first to Stan Wooley’s JazzJournal International interview with George as it was written later in Russell’s career and contains a footnotes that cross-reference to his discography [JJI xxxix/10 (1986)].

You can locate more information about JazzJournal by going here.

“IT seems to me that the times now require going back. Much as how American music went back to discover its roots in gospel and country music, so too now, I feel, my music has to go back to the source. And Africa is that source.”

The speaker is George Russell who returned to the`source' in 1983 and wrote The African Game (1), a major work with which he made his Blue Note debut. The ambitious, nine-movement work also formed part of the concert programme on the composer's first ever UK tour earlier this year. The African Game is the latest work in a distinguished career which has spanned some four decades and extended the frontiers of modern jazz. An academic and theoretician, Russell published his Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organisation in 1953, a work which pointed jazz in new directions and revolutionised the thinking of many important jazz musicians.

Russell was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on June 23, 1923 and became aware of jazz by listening to the bands on the riverboats as they passed through his hometown. He began playing drums while in the boy scouts and by the age of 15 had become proficient enough to perform in public. But during his late teens and early twenties, he was dogged by poor health and at 19 was admitted to a sanatorium with TB. It was while he was thus confined that he began to study arranging and during that same year wrote several charts for the local A. B. Townsend Orchestra.

In 1944, Russell joined Benny Carter's band on drums, only to be replaced soon by Max Roach. Carter continued to make use of Russell's talents to rehearse the orchestra and also encouraged his writing. This was typical of Carter who, during the forties, furthered the careers of many musicians who later went on to greater things.

`One arrangement I did for Benny,' Russell recalled, 'was New World which took me a long time to write. I rehearsed it with the band at the Downtown Theatre in Chicago and they all liked it but thought it was too advanced at that time. Anyway, Benny bought it from me. It was a strong band and a good one to write for.'

It is interesting to note that during the forties the Benny Carter orchestra nurtured two future musical theoreticians in its ranks - Russell and the enigmatic Bob Graettinger. Graettinger joined Carter on alto saxophone in 1946 and went on to achieve somewhat controversial fame later that same decade with compositions for the Stan Kenton orchestra fashioned from a system of colours and graphs.

Russell also arranged for Earl Hines' band during the mid-forties. `He was a very nice man,' Russell said. `Very encouraging and he liked my music. I wrote the numbers for Earl's opening show at the Eldorado Cafe in Chicago for which I got very good reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times. Earl was incredibly youthful and always smiling, right up to his last years.'

Impressed by what he had heard of the New York jazz scene, particularly the music of Thelonious Monk, Russell headed for the Big Apple. He was engaged to play drums with the Charlie Parker quintet when he was admitted to St Joseph's Hospital in the Bronx with a recurrence of TB and spent the next 15 months there. It was an event which could easily have ended a promising career, but it brought forth an idea which was to radically alter the course of jazz. His health restored, Russell developed the idea into his Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organisation. He immediately began applying its principles to his compositions, the most important of which at that time was Cubana Be, Cubana Bop (2), premiered at Carnegie Hall in December 1947 by Dizzy Gillespie and his Orchestra.

The original composition did not include Latin percussionist Chano Pozo's now familiar contribution, as Russell explains: `I was on the bus with the band shortly after that New York concert and heard Chano Pozo doing these chants, so I suggested to Dizzy that we should feature Chano in the middle of the piece. Dizzy agreed and so we did it like that for the first time in Boston and then recorded it that way. Pozo was a very strong and forceful guy, and it was hard to get to know much about him. because he didn't, speak English all that well. He insisted on his royalties for Cubana Be, Cubana Bop and let you know you'd better come up with them too.  He was as very serious and a pretty heavy fellow who was later killed in a vendetta.'

The Gillespie orchestra recorded Cubana Be, Cubana Bop in New York on December 22, 1947. It remains to this day a remarkable piece of music, with its menacing intro leading into those glorious ensembles over which the leader's magnificent trumpet soars, eventually giving way to Pozo's electrifying chanting and drumming. `This was a great creative period in our history,' Dizzy Gillespie once said, .and Cubana Be, Cubana Bop was one of utmost adventurous pieces. It was just perfect and it's still right now.'

Russell's work was rather sporadic during the late forties - presumably perfecting his Lydian Chromatic Theory occupied most of his time. Then, in April 1949, clarinettist Buddy DeFranco fronted a studio orchestra which recorded Russell's A Bird in Igor's Yard (3). The juxtaposition of Charlie Parker and Igor Stravinsky in the tle is most apt because the composer has yawn from both these controversial musical pioneers. Whether Stravinsky ever borrowed from Russell is an interesting point for speculation but Parker regularly featured Russell's Ezz-Thetic when working with his string combo. The piece is better known as a result of the Lee Konitz sextet's recording of March, 1951, which has Miles Davis in the line-up (4), and Russell's own Smalltet version which he cut for Victor in March, 1956 (5).

In the early fifties, Russell dropped out of the scene in order to finish his theory. The work was eventually completed and published in 1953, when Russell was working as a sales assistant at Macy's department store in New York. Although the concept represents some 10 years of Russell's life, he never referred to it on stage during his UK concert tour.

‘Well, I don't like to brag,' he said. `I think it made contemporary music, and I don't mean just jazz, conscious of modes. It introduced modal consciousness in terms which no one was thinking about, certainly not jazz musicians nor, as far as I know, symphonic musicians. The Concept simply codified the modes and introduced chord-scale unity. In other words, for every chord there's a scale of unity and this gives the jazz musician greater resources.'

By the mid-fifties, many of the more progressively minded musicians became aware of the constraints that improvising within the chord sequence imposed upon them. The boppers had developed and extended this to the limit of its potential and further advances lay in other directions, one of which was the exciting new freedom and harmonic vistas opened up by Russell's theory.

`Miles (Davis) picked up on the idea first and he popularised it,' said Russell. ‘He used it on the piece called Milestones (6) which proved very successful and then came the Kind Of Blue (7) album which really established it.' Russell has great regard for Davis and concluded many of his UK concerts with a quite remarkable version of Davis' trumpet solo from So What (7) scored for the entire orchestra. `It pays Miles due respect for what he has contributed to me and other musicians,' Russell said.

The early sixties were a busy period for Russell but the majority of his activities centred around a sextet, presumably for economic reasons. `Yes, how did you guess?' he said. `It was impossible to have a big band at that time but this didn't bother me too much. The small group is always the laboratory out of which the big band concepts come, so all my big band albums were really written with a small band in mind.' During the three year period of its existence, the sextet's personnel included at various times such musical pioneers as Don Ellis, Eric Dolphy, David Baker, Steve Swallow and vocalist Sheila Jordan. Carla Bley, a student of Russell's during this period, contributed the occasional chart but in the main all the writing was done by the leader who also played piano with the group.

As a rule, record companies tend to shy away from bands with advanced or experimental ideas but this wasn't so with the Russell sextet. In all, six albums were released between 1960 and 1963: At The Five Spot (8), In Kansas City (9), Stratusphunk (10), Ezz-Thetics (11), Stratus Seekers (12) and The Outer View (13). Live concert performances, however, were few and far between during this time.

In 1963, Russell emigrated to Europe where he achieved considerable success and critical acclaim with a European version of his sextet. The group broadcast regularly on Scandinavian radio and even recorded a further two albums during this period: At Beethoven Hall (14) in 1965 with Don Cherry and Othello Ballet Suite/Electric Sonata No 1 (15) three years later with Downbeat according the latter a five-star rating.

Russell returned to the United States in 1969 and joined the staff of the New England Conservatory of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he now resides. In the mid-seventies he stopped composing to work on a second volume of his Lydian Chromatic Concept which he completed in 1978. In the past many of Russell's compositions have been linear in construction with two, Ezz-Thetic (5) and Knights Of The Steamtable (5) almost Tristano-like in their concept. But over the last 15 years Russell has formulated a complex theory of polyrhythmic organisation for which he has this explanation:

'I can't imagine any piece based on African music that didn't reflect vertical form because the Africans were the innovators of this idea,' he explained. `In an African drum choir, one drummer is the rhythmic gravity while the others gradually layer sophisticated rhythms on top of this tonal centre. The whole isn't really evolving in a horizontal way, it's evolving in complexity and density. It's vertical energy, getting higher and higher, compounding.'

Russell uses vertical form extensively in The African Game, which he wrote over a period of six months in 1983. The nine movement tone poem formed the centrepiece on his UK concert tour with a 13 piece band billed as George Russell's Anglo-American Orchestra. In deference to the presence of the excellent Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg. who was featured on the aforementioned So What, Euro-American might have been a more fitting title.

Originally commissioned by the Massachusetts Council On The Arts and the Swedish Broadcasting System, The African Game received its American debut on June 18, 1983 in Boston's Emmanuel Church by a 26-piece orchestra of local musicians and an African percussion ensemble called Olu Bata. It was this live performance that was recorded and now appears on Blue Note. The inspiration for the work is Africa where it is now generally accepted that the human race originated and evolved.
'Musically I think The African Game does reflect the earliest beginnings and might also project the ultimate outcome, as reflected in the rather dynamic crescendo at the end of the piece,' Russell said meaningfully. Like Cubana Be, Cubana Bop of some 40 years before, The African Game is a rhythmically strong work and, in addition to the five-man percussion ensemble, two bass players were also used on the date. Russell is particularly pleased with the outcome of the recording, too: `It was a live performance,' he said, `and it was flawless, absolutely flawless.'

Over the years, Russell's contribution to the development of 'jazz has never been fully recognised. During the forties and six¬ties he exerted great influence on the music and if The African Game is anything to go by, he looks like doing so again in the eighties and beyond.”

(1) Blue Note BST 85103
(2) Dizzy Gillespie: Vol 2 RCA 731068
(3) Crosscurrents: Capitol Jazz Classics Vol 14 Capitol 5C052 80853
(4) Ezz-Thetics Lee Konitz Sextet Xtra 5004
(5) Ezz-Thetics George Russell Smalltet RCA PL 42187
(6) Milestones Miles Davis CBS 62308
(7) CBS 62066
(8) Decca DL 9220
(9) Decca DL 4183
(10) Riverside RLP 341
(11) Riverside RLP 375
(12) Riverside RLP 412
(13) Fontana 688 705ZL
(14) MPS MC 25125
(15) Soul Note 1014
No known recordings exist of New World or Ezz-Thetic by Charlie Parker with strings.

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