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Wednesday, March 04, 2020

An appraisal of George Russell’s Jazz Theory and its link to his iconic album “NEW YORK, N.Y”

(By Dave Brownlow)

In 1948, a group of young, forward-thinking jazz musicians and arrangers would often gather in Gil Evans’ basement ‘pad’ to play music , exchange ideas, write charts, make plans, form bands, collaborate and socialize. Among them were John Lewis, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, Johnny Carisi, George Russell, occasionally Charlie Parker and of course Gil himself. Many of these characters went on to achieve varying degrees of success in the world of jazz as it unfolded from the bebop era. Sadly unappreciated and under-recognised was George Russell (1923 – 2009) who has had a significant influence on jazz music as we know it today through his academic study “The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation” of which there were several strands, and which was first published in 1953.

Put simply, George explained that by using just the notes of the Lydian mode (i.e. a white-note only scale -   F G A B natural C D E F – NOTE no Bb) it would be possible to improvise in a modal fashion rather than just by following the chord sequences of the blues, jazz standards, original compositions or contrafacts as had been the norm hitherto. As a result, subsequently, players like Miles Davis (So What?), John Coltrane (My Favorite ThingsImpressions etc) Bill Evans (Peace Piece) Wayne Shorter (Footprints) were pioneers among many artists who have incorporated Russell’s modal ideas into contemporary jazz today

George Russell began to put his ideas into fruition in the ground-breaking CD New York, N.Y. recorded between 1957 and 1959, released in ’59, when many in the world of jazz wondered how the music would develop after bebop and the death of Bird in 1955.  It’s astonishing to read the names of the personnel involved in this album who obviously wanted to work with George, play his music and learn from his theories. It looks like a roll-call of the great and the good of the time- John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Max Roach, Benny Golson, Art Farmer, Bob Brookmeyer, Phil Woods, Al Cohn, Jimmy Knepper, Jon Hendricks, George Duvivier, Milt Hinton, Don Lamond, Charlie Persip as well as 1st Division ‘read anything’ section men like Ernie Royal, Joe Wilder, Jimmy Cleveland, Hal McKusick, Barry Galbraith and others.

This album, originally given 5stars by DownBeat Magazine, begins with a leisurely stroll through Rodgers and Hart’s Manhattan, probably a slightly more conventional track which initiates the listener gently to the writing, arrangements and solos. Jon Hendricks sets the scene with his spoken, wry, observant statements in rap-style about life in N.Y. Brookmeyer, Evans, Coltrane and Farmer have extended, fluent, exciting solos where changes of tempo add to the interest leading to a reflective, long, coda section where the orchestrations cleverly shine in modal style across the brass and reed sections, as the melancholic blues phrases from the whole band intertwine – a blue-drenched requiem for Bird perhaps?

An 11½ minute track, Big City Blues, opens with another Hendricks narration - hip and observant- in which he remarks that “lack of acceptance was something Bird died from”. A slow, dense carefully orchestrated section leads to medium-tempo solos from Golson, Farmer in blue/Lydian mode, Evans tumbling acrobatically through the blues chords with brass Lydian backgrounds leading to  a final slow written section

Russell long had an interest in ‘exotic’ jazz (he wrote Cubana Be  Cubana Bop) for Dizzy Gillespie’s first Big Band and here, Manhatta-Rico  follows in that style introduced again by Hendricks using politically loaded observations still relevant today. A rousing theme statement with drums and bongos from Lamond and Al Epstein well to the fore leads to convincing solos from Brookmeyer, Evans (reeds quietly comping as in Evans/Davis Miles Ahead), Phil Woods in urgent lyrical style, and Farmer almost Navarro-like.

East Side Medley (Autumn In New York /How About You) is beautifully introduced by Evans at his most lyrical. Gorgeous background figures first from the trombones, then the whole band, take the piece along in medium tempo while Evans continues with imaginative playing continually hinting at the melody. The piece segues into the second song again with Evans at the forefront (he was actually the featured soloist for the whole project and his enthusiastic playing showed his complete empathy for the music). Farmer briefly shines again then back to Evans who cannily brings the medley to a close.

 A Helluva Town is an up-tempo thrash built around Max Roach  in a frantic, drum master-class where ‘conversations’ between band and drums are built in to this Russell composition and orchestral figures are arranged in Lydian style. The five songs described above are presented as a suite and segue together in the same way as Gil Evans and Miles Davis did in their first collaboration (The ‘Miles Ahead’ LP) from 1957.

All About Rosie was commissioned by Gunther Schuller (he of ‘Third Stream’ fame) in June 1957 for his own orchestra. In this piece, George uses another strand of his theory – one pentatonic scale is imposed on another and yes it works (A pentatonic scale has only 5 notes eg  D F G A C  where E and B are omitted - such scales are often used in English Folk Songs). A composition in 2 parts lasting 10mins 45sec begins in lively tempo- where an attractive theme is bounced around all the sections in Part 1 and where Teddy Charles’ vibes add a different dimension. Solos are from an aggressive Evans, a cool John LaPorta on alto, brash Art Farmer, boppish Teddy Charles, dry Hal McKusick on alto and strong bass from Fred Zimmerman   Part 2 is built around an extended, slow sexy blues – Rosie must’ve been quite someone! There is also an equally good alternate take of Part 1.

Russell continued to work throughout his career both teaching, composing and playing “arranger’s piano” in his own groups and refining his Theory. His writing became more ‘way-out’ and avante-garde as he performed with ‘freer’ musicians like Eric Dolphy and Don Cherry. He also lived and worked in Scandinavia for some years.

In summary, I would say the music in this album is accessible partly because George used well-known songs and blues to form his frameworks. In addition, some of the players were still in the ‘School of Modern Jazz’ and who were beginning to listen to and learn from new ideas. It must have been ‘hellish’ recording these tracks due to the complexity of the music and difficulty to read it – but all the playing was remarkable nonetheless. Bill Evans played as aggressively as at any time in his life, Art Farmer’s playing  was much more extrovert than when he was in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, John Coltrane was already a formidable player and I didn’t realise how good a drummer was Charlie Persip
Dave Brownlow.

George Milburn's post.

1 comment :

Lance said...

A magnificent appraisal, Dave, of George's work which truly brings to the light the significance of a musician who may have been overlooked by some in the evolution of contemporary orchestral jazz.

As proof of George Russell's standing can be found in an earlier lengthy report on his appearance at a Bracknell Jazz Festival by George Milburn after George Russell's death in 2009. Also, on that post, are comments from folks, including Dave Weisser, who attended his Newcastle concert at the People's Theatre.

I've added the link to the post.

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