Top 50 JAzz Blog

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

RIP George Russell.

John Fitzerald Kennedy's favorite jazz guy now joins him in the great whatever in the sky. JFK loved "Jazz in the Space Age."

As a kid I sat in on a couple of George lectures and saw his student bands at New England Conservatory a few times.

He had an compelling and, to me, useful lecture on the acceleration of units of time from the early Jazz world of King Oliver to the present, (circa 1974) using modes of travel as his working metaphor wherein the whole note units of early jazz expressed the tempo of the day like horse drawn carriages and then the movement to half notes was Tin Lizzy and quarter notes was a Streamliner locomotive, Basie's super chief.

The 16th notes of Bird's time were fighter planes from world war two and the 32nd notes of Coltrane where jet aircraft and Ornette, why he was a rocket ship.

I folded it into my own narrative. George loved to play with time and his late period ensembles found amazing juxtapositions wherein a large ensemble might entail several sub units working in different time frames for astonishing dynamic tempo tensions.

The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization is his monument and another of the rare working texts in the small canon of reference works of value to a jazz composer. He had a very quiet voice, maybe an outcome of his debilitating wrestle with tuberculosis which compelled him to abandon his aspiration to be a drummer.

And yet this aspiration transformed into a way of thinking about sonic architecture as if ensemble sections were metaphors for toms, snares, cymbals and kick drum. He was in the center of things in the early 60s with many innovations such as sonic movies like New York, New York.

Stratusphunk, rendered by the Gil Evans Orchestra, has an unique bubbling buoyancy about it. Ezzthetic has to be one of the most gorgeous recordings ever, especially 'Nardis', a Miles tune that never found its way into Miles own recordings of the period. I can still whistle its haunting Arabesques.

Evans and Russell together were something and it's sad they didn't work together more often as Gil went off to infatuations with Jimmy Hendrix that sound like Uncle Ralph trying to wow the kids at an undergrad mixer.

Hendrix was such a singular force that attempts to repackage him often end up sounding odd and dorky as if he is impervious to them and lord knows it wasn't for lack of trying. Gil shoulda stuck with George instead of trying to wow the boomers.

George was one of the people I found on old WBUR radio before NPR wrecked it. And then I was surprised to discover someone of his stature was right here, in Boston, a school within a school and far more majestic and compelling than that odd enervated Ran Blake third stream mess that seemed to owe its existence to an effort to fabricate a form pleasing to dotty blue blood endowment dowagers.

For some reason I'm hearing Shane MacGowan in my minds ear right now.."And we tipped a glass to JFK and a dozen more besides.." That could just as well apply to George, a lingering living time vestage of Camelot now at last laid to rest.

Sleep you well.


Steve Elman said...

Chris, that was a beautiful and heartfelt essay on George. One thing for you and your readers to know: tonight (10/2) there will be tribute concert at Jordan Hall at 8PM, with the NEC Jazz Orchestra and a very strong guest list.

The promo on this has been shameful, and the indifference to it from the local arts press saddens me deeply. How can we allow one of our greatest musical citizens to pass without a major commemoration? At least NEC is doing its part.

Pat Hollenbeck and Brad Hatfield, who were two of George's closest musical associates in the past twenty years, wil be with the orchestra, so the quality will be high. Plus there will be guest shots from Ran Blake, George Garzone, Tiger Okoshi, Marc Rossi and Joe Hunt, just to name a few.

Anyway, it should be a great show, and it's free.

Thanks again from one of George's great admirers -

Steve Elman

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