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In Writing

George Russell: Rational Anthems: Phase One

April 2011

Early works, the emergence of the Lydian Theory, the Workshop and associated recordings discussed by Max Harrison. This article first appeared in The Wire 3 (Spring 1983).

Jelly Roll Morton was the first jazz intellectual. That is to say he was the first to develop theories as to what jazz is, how it works, and who was able to explain his ideas lucidly, systematically, as in his famous 1938 Library of Congress recordings. Unsurprisingly, there have been few similar cases. Its abiding show-business affiliations still encourage many followers of this music to cherish an image of the jazzman as one who sticks his horn into his mouth and blindly emotes. In such an ambience, to have ideas and be articulate about them is to invite hostility. Yet Morton has had a few successors.

George Russell was born in Cincinnati, in 1923, the year, as it happens, that Morton cut his first significant body of recordings. And he had an appropriate background for one who was to produce what John Lewis would call “the first contribution made by jazz to the theory of music”, his father being Professor of Music at Oberlin University. But jazz got to him in his early teens, an important influence being Jimmy Mundy, a neighbour, who was then arranging for Benny Goodman. By the age of 15, Russell was playing the drums at a local nightclub, and at Wilberforce University joined a band named the Collegians.

Launched as a writer

At 20 he joined Benny Carter to work as a drummer. But Russell had learnt something about arranging from a fellow patient at a TB sanatorium, and one day, at a downtown theatre in Chicago, the band tried over one of his pieces. Subsequently he recalled, "Benny was very happy with it, and on top of that he paid me for it... I was launched on a writing career". Next, he did some arranging for Earl Hines, who was at the El Grotto club in Chicago. And then came Dizzy Gillespie's 1946 recording of "Round About Midnight". This latter had a great effect on him, and he knew he had to be at the centre of things, in New York.

Gillespie was putting a large band together, his second, and several arrangers were offering him material. Not feeling particularly confident, Russell brought out his Carter piece, and the trumpeter liked it as much as the alto saxophonist had. However, illness was again ready to play a crucial role in his life, the very next day putting him into hospital for 16 months. Later he said, "I knew I had to make use of this time to educate myself. From the scraps of advanced harmony I'd learnt, I knew that my answer didn't lie in traditional theory. I'd experimented a bit with polytonality, but on the piano in the hospital library I began a really intensive research into tonality" (1). That continued for 11 months, and towards the end of this time the Lydian mode (characterised by a sharpened fourth, and found in folk music in several parts of the world) began to emerge as a key factor.

On leaving hospital, Russell accepted an invitation to recuperate at Max Roach's Brooklyn apartment, where Gillespie, Lewis, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were frequent guests. There, "Thanks to Max's piano and Mrs Roach's monumental patience, I continued to research for another nine months,” he remembered (1). Then he needed to find out if he could utilise his discoveries in composition. The result was that he conducted Gillespie's band in "Cubana Be/Cubana Bop" at Carnegie Hall in December 1947. In the same month, a record was made and the jazz community at large became aware of George Russell, though not immediately.

Published comment centred on the leader's trumpeting, even although this was set in an unprecedented context, and upon Chano Pozo's chanting and superb conga drumming. But the exultant, harshly incantatory ensemble passages, like those of "Thermopylae", Robert Graettinger's first score for Stan Kenton, recorded that same month, December 1947, for a while defied attempts at a coherent response. Russell's two movements are strikingly different from each other yet obviously related closely, their approach to the jazz orchestra's resources being disconcertingly independent of convention. This is most evident in the music's discontinuity, its juxtaposition of very different textures and types of motion, in its violently unpredictable rhythmic life. It is consistent but accords with laws then unfamiliar, and only years later did we grasp that "Cubana Be/Cubana Bop" was the most original piece ever recorded by a Gillespie big band.

Meanwhile, Russell had been noticed by other perceptive leaders and wrote arrangements for Claude Thornhill, Artie Shaw, and an interesting version of "Caravan" that was recorded by Charlie Ventura. His next ‘major’ score acquired, however, a legendary reputation all of its own. "The Bird In Igor's Yard" was long available only in the form of two acetates, one owned by Gerry Mulligan, the other by the New York disc-jockey Symphony Sid, who broadcast it frequently on his late night radio programme. Recorded by Buddy de Franco's large band in 1949, it was only issued commercially much later and shows that in the 18 months since “Cubana Be/Cubana Bop”, Russell had moved to a considerably more precise use of his discoveries. Essentially an advance on Eddie Sauter's intelligent vehicles for Goodman such as “Clarinet A La King”, with the leader's instrument deeply embedded in the ensemble and room for tenor and piano solos by Al Cohn and Gene di Novi, “The Bird In Igor's Yard” benefits from better performance and recording than the Gillespie piece. The problem for listeners is this music's diversity of gesture, for it presents a sequence of new yet unmistakably connected ideas, often more than one at a time. So tightly packed are these that the piece leaves an impression of size out of proportion to its brief length. The complexities, though, are of a strictly musical order, encouraging the musicians to play with fire and spontaneity.

That “The Bird In Igor's Yard” signalled a process of refinement and further exploration on Russell's part was confirmed by his next two memorable recordings, “Odjenar”, named after his wife at that time, Anita Odjenar, and “Ezz-thetic”, dedicated to the boxer Ezzard Charles. These sextet outings date from 1951, and show Russell's music briefly intersecting that of Lennie Tristano. This was not due to the presence of Billy Bauer's guitar and Lee Konitz's alto saxophone, but, rather, because of its uncompromising linearity, in which the recondite harmonies are largely dissolved.

Logical ordering of events

In contrast, though, with the untrammelled impulses which shape Tristano's freely improvised “Intuition” and “Digression” of 1949, Russell imposes what seems like a logical ordering of events, the tightly patterned short and long phrases of “Odjenar” switching restlessly between the guitar, alto and Davis's trumpet. There is unpredictable counterpoint between the two horns on “Ezz-thetic”, and the ascetic tendency behind the leaping, angular lines of “The Bird in Igor's Yard” is here stronger. Konitz is adept on both items, Roach's drumming is tirelessly inventive on “Ezz-thetic”, but these pieces are less well performed and recorded than the de Franco score. Nothing could conceal, however, that “Ezz-thetic” was an extremely original variant on the usual sort of bop up-tempo number (based, somewhat remotely, on the chords of “Love For Sale”), and it is regrettable that the version Russell made for Parker's string ensemble was not the sort of thing Norman Granz, who had the great man under contract, was interested in recording.

After this, Russell dropped out of circulation for about five years. He devoted the period 1950–53 to a gradual formalisation of his ideas and the production of a thesis which eventually was published (2). Practically no composing was done during this time, and he later said: “The theory had become an organic part of my life. It was a live, growing thing with a constantly expanding logical life of its own ... a concept with a soul, born out of jazz and its needs, yet embracing all music created in the equal temperament system” (1).

What he had done was to examine the entire harmonic resources of Western music, finding and systematising an entirely fresh set of relationships that had always been present in the transitional framework and which, so to speak, only awaited discovery. There is, unfortunately, no space here to explain Russell's ideas, and it can only be said that his concept is based on the grading of intervals by the distance of their pitches from a central note. That may not sound much, yet it makes available resources whose full possibilities, as John Benson Brooks has written, “may take as much as a century to work out” (3). And according to Art Farmer, who was to have an important role in some of Russell's forthcoming records, the Lydian Chromatic Concept “opens the doors to countless means of melodic expression. It also dispels many of the don'ts and can'ts that, to various degrees, have been imposed on the improvisor through the study of traditional harmony'(1).

New refinement of technique

During 1953–55, Russell composed experimentally within this now well-defined set of relationships, but “each insoluble new problem caused the Concept to erupt”, and “following each eruption there came a new refinement of technique, a more secure grasp of more materials”(1). Clearly the time was approaching for him to test his ideas publicly, and this re-emergence was signalled by the inclusion of his “Lydian M-1” on Teddy Charles's Tentet LP of January 1956. That was only a prelude, however, to the substantial body of music which Russell now set down.

There were three recording sessions in the following March, October and December, the results being issued as by George Russell's Smalltet in RCA's Jazz Workshop series. The personnel, which was subject to few variations, was built on that of a quartet with which Hal McKusick (alto), Barry Galbraith (guitar) and Milt Hinton (bass) sometimes worked, and was completed by Farmer (trumpet), Bill Evans (piano) and Joe Harris (drums). A contemporaneous LP in the Workshop series led by McKusick and employing a related personnel contains three substantial pieces by Russell. These, together with the dozen items on the composer's own record and three more on McKusick's 1958 LP, Cross Section Saxes, represent a complete justification of Russell's long years of labour.

Most obviously, they demonstrate the variety of his thematic ideas and of his treatments of them in music that teems with invention yet is altogether consistent stylistically, that has an immediately recognisable character but which is very subtle. Thus although both “Jack's Blues” and “Night Sound” might be called jazz nocturnes, they are quite different. The latter, with its shifting tonal centres, has contrapuntal lines that are distinct but constantly overlap, while the theme section of “Jack's Blues”, although having a definite pulse, conveys an impression of a mobile, nervously undecided tempo. These are intricate and masterly scores with a subdued intensity that is peculiarly Russell's. In contrast, “Miss Clara”, from McKusick's Workshop LP, has angular, cranky thematic phrases whose wilfully abrupt movements are tellingly underlined by thick scoring. Perhaps the most vivid passage is the unaccompanied contrapuntal opening by Farmer's trumpet and Jimmy Cleveland's trombone, though in all these pieces Russell's searching originality informs every detail.

It is no paradox, however, that he appears in these compositions as the most sophisticated of jazzmen, more aware than others, perhaps because of his period of study with Stefan Wolpe, of the larger world of music. On a piece such as “Fellow Delegates”, in which Russell himself takes part, using a set of chromatically tuned drums of California redwood, percussion is employed with a nearly Bartokian sensitivity and invention. Noticeable, also, are the ostinatos, overlapping unevenly in a decidedly Stravinskian manner, on “Ye Hypocrite, Ye Beelzebub”. Likewise, when Russell has a soloist improvise in one key while the band is in another (for example, Farmer in A minor against a B flat minor background on “Knights Of The Steamtable”), it recalls Bartok's practice of accompanying a melody only with pitches which are not used in the melody itself. His awareness of the Schoenbergian technique of continuous variation (anticipated, in jazz, by Duke Ellington's “Old King Dooji” of 1938, but never followed up) is hinted at in several of these pieces, too.

Expressing several moods

Another of Russell's preoccupations at this time was that of expressing several moods in the same piece, instances being “Jack's Blues” and the alfresco “Ballad of Hix Blewitt”. His best examples, however, are “Lydian Lullaby” and “The Day John Brown Was Hanged”, both recorded under McKusick's name. The former opens with the kind of restlessness also created by the agitated geometry of “Livingstone, I Presume?” and resolves to an overtly romantic mood whose continuing uneasiness is conveyed by a volatile mixture of tense and languorous phrases. Slowly this assumes a more dance like character, but the disquiet, which had never been far away, cannot be held off, and returns.

In “The Day John Brown Was Hanged”, the most substantial piece from this phase of Russell's development, the same emotional and formal scheme is written larger and more elaborately. Again the opening presents jagged, highly rhythmic non-imitative counterpoint with strongly differentiated figures set against each other and across the beat. This is suddenly broken into by Galbraith's statement of “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” (“John Brown's body…”), which, over desolate, eerily sustained notes from McKusick, sounds unreal, bizarre. The melody's diatonic squareness throws into relief the emotional and technical complexity of its surroundings. Beginning as a dance, the central section brings a return of strongly rhythmic activity, but the texture is now discontinuous, its range of gesture too diverse to charge the atmosphere with the nascent gaiety, and, in one of the most masterly passages Russell has ever devised, it transforms itself into an oddly disembodied, intensely sad blues. This leads to a shorter quotation from “The Battle Hymn” that imperceptibly shifts back into the opening restlessness, which had never really been held at bay.

We might have expected music of such high quality and independent character to be ignored, but it did lead to one commission. From “The End Of A Love Affair” and “You're My Thrill” on McKusick's Cross Section Saxes LP, Russell distills further intensely rhythmic and contrapuntal scores, but his most imaginative use of borrowed material has remained “All About Rosie”. This was written, along with pieces by Jimmy Giuffre, Charles Mingus, Gunther Schuller, Milton Babbitt and Harold Shapero, for Brandeis University's fourth Festival of the Creative Arts in 1957, and is based, he said in the programme notes, “on a motive taken from an Alabama Negro children's song-game entitled “Rosie, Little Rosie””. Once again we find a quasi-Stravinskian superimposition of phrases of unequal length, tension arising from conflict between the regularity of the underlying beat, which shifts between 2/2 and 3/2, and the irregular way the accents of these phrases fall around it. In this first movement a cogent musical argument is developed through repetition and sequence which rises to a logical, abrupt, climaxial end.

Instantly recognisable style

A similar process can be heard, slowed down, in the central movement. This may be considered an investigation of how to retain the feeling of the blues without the form, and passes meaningfully through several tonal areas with unobtrusive but always telling changes of instrumental colour. In fact this is an entirely convincing instance of fully written-out jazz polyphony, best studied in conjunction with “You're My Thrill” and “The End of a Love Affair”. The very rapid finale includes a brilliant solo by Evans – the recorded performance with which he first attracted wide attention – followed by excellent ones from John LaPorta, Farmer, Teddy Charles and McKusick. This powerfully swinging conclusion receives precisely the virtuoso performance it deserves. The movements are well differentiated but the basic shape of the main “Rosie, Little Rosie” phrase can be glimpsed in all three, adding to the unity imparted through Russell's by now instantly recognisable style of writing.

The stinging impact and seeming inevitability of such pieces tempt one to suggest that he succeeded here in bringing a greater degree of rationality to the writing and improvising of jazz. Certainly the solos of Farmer, McKusick, Evans and the centrally important if unobtrusive ensemble work of Galbraith relate with unusual closeness to Russell's astringent and diversified themes. He has said: “A jazz writer is an improvisor, too,” (4) and that the best jazz compositions “might even sound more intuitive than a purely improvised solo” (5).

This is relevant to the thematic origin of “All About Rosie”, for Russell's music has as strong a sense of the past as of the present and future. A piece such as “Lydian M-1”, recorded by Charles in 1956, still sounds more modern than much work done ten or even 20 years later, yet the criss-crossing of its furiously mobile ensemble lines echoes the collective improvisations of much earlier jazz. Embodying the oldest and newest tendencies of this music, Russell's finest pieces sound timeless. That would have been a satisfying enough achievement for most people, but he needed to go on, and in two ways. Firstly, having, with Tristano, Mingus and a few others, anticipated the freedoms of the new jazz of the 1960s from Ornette Coleman onwards, he wanted to explore their scope in relation to his own methods, and that meant, secondly, forming a regular band of his own. This became the Sextet, about whose imposing sequence of seven LPs the jazz community has for some 20 years maintained an almost unanimous silence. That silence will be broken in the next article in this series.

(1) Dom Cerulli: “George Russell” in Down Beat, 29th May, 1958.
(2) George Russell: The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation (New York, 1959).
(3) John Benson Brooks: “George Russell” in The Jazz Review, February 1960.
(4) From Russell's sleeve-note for the original American issue of his Jazz Workshop LP, unfortunately not retained for subsequent reissues.
(5) George Russell: “Where Do We Go from Here?” in The Jazz Word edited by Dom Cerulli, Burt Korall and Mort Nasatir (New York, 1960).

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