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George Russell: Rational Anthems: Phase Two

April 2011

The output of George Russell's Sextet, discussed by Max Harrison. This article first appeared in The Wire 4 (Summer 1983).

"They jammed "Woody'n You" for half an hour; I could get you fifty groups to do that." Thus wrote a New York friend of mine on the morning after the debut of George Russell's Sextet.

The formation of this group had seemed a logical, even necessary, step after the recording, in 1956-58, of the substantial body of work discussed in the last issue (The Wire 3, see Rational Anthems: Phase One, available online here). And as events were to prove, those pieces so well embodied Russell's aims, methods, his first artistic maturity, that getting them on to disc was an achievement that seemed both to concentrate his energies and open the floodgates, as in the next few years he produced a still larger quantity of fine music.

Yet he was as independent of fashion as Gil Evans or Lennie Tristano, and although the Sextet was among the most creative jazz units of its time, its public career scarcely suggested as much. Russell's case was rather like that of Tristano, who said his music "was always in a state of development – and that's no way to sell something" (1), meaning the jazz business requires a standardised product, which always sounds the same, which the fans can recognise. The Sextet's music changed considerably, and, quite apart from Russell's teaching activities, it was not his sole preoccupation during these years. Luckily, its many aspects were adequately documented on LP.

Centrally characteristic is a hymnic, freely swinging modality that soon reached far larger audiences through the cleverly promoted John Coltrane. A comparison between the jaunty and joyous "Honesty" and the desolate yet beautiful "Lonely Place", with self-communing solos against minatory accompanimental figures, indicates, however, that the group's emotional range was uncommonly wide. This mirrors its extensive links with both past and future. Except for two remarkable accounts of "You Are My Sunshine" and use of the "Indiana" chord sequence as the basis for Russell's "New Donna", the older popular music, from which earlier jazzmen got many of their themes, is admittedly not in evidence on the LPs. But the past is most obviously echoed in the use of Parker's "Au Privave" and "Confirmation", Miles Davis's "Sipping at Bell's", "Nardis" and "Tune Up", Clifford Brown's "Sandu", Milt Jackson's "Bags' Groove", and two very different versions of Monk's "Round About Midnight".

Accommodating major personalities

Hints of the future were contained in the Sextet's employment of themes by Carla Bley, then a pupil of Russell's, these including "Dance Class", "Beast Blues", "Rhymes", "Bent Eagle" and "Zig-Zag". Indeed, the band's records, like certain of Jimmy Giuffre's from this period, contain important, and neglected, evidence on Miss Bley's beginnings. The rest of the material came from within the group, from Al Kiger, Dave Baker, a few pieces by Russell pupils such as Dave Lahm ("Lambskins"); and, surprisingly, one Coltrane item, "Moment's Notice". The remaining themes were by Russell himself, and the music was very much on his terms, although the soloists were given all necessary space and the Sextet was able without compromise to accommodate major personalities such as Don Cherry and Eric Dolphy.

Notwithstanding obvious differences between the lucidly poised 1956 Workshop recording of "Ezz-thetic" and the faster, more vehement Sextet one of five years later, Russell, as his resorting to the oldest of the themes mentioned above implies, remained a child of the bop years. As James Moody said, in bop "everything that is obvious is excluded"(2), and this is the factor which most strikingly unites the Sextet's output with Russell's earlier and later music. These records, like the Workshop items and subsequent whole LPs such as Jazz In The Space Age, belong to that small category of jazz recordings wherein even the most fastidious listener can afford to let his ears dwell on every sound. To put it another way, cliches, because of their familiarity, are reassuring to timid spirits, and their utter absence from his music goes some way to explain its lack of popular acceptance.

Aside from the leader and Chuck Israels, the bassist, the other initial members of the Sextet - Al Kiger (trumpet), Dave Baker (trombone), Dave Young (tenor) and Joe Hunt (drums) - had been in the Indiana University Jazz Orchestra and had studied with Russell at the School of Jazz, Lenox. Their first LP, George Russell Sextet At The Five Spot, was not a location recording but consists rather of items played at one of the earlier engagements; it shows, my New York friend notwithstanding, the quite definite personality their performances had almost from the start.

Young immediately commands attention on "Sipping at Bell's" with his decisively shaped phrases. Kiger displays similar qualities in "Dance Class", where, like the others, he takes changes of tempo - always prominent in the Sextet's work - imperturbably in his stride. Features of "Sipping at Bell's" are four bar breaks taken by all the horns simultaneously; solos lead to an exchange of fours, thence to a collective improvisation from which Davis's convoluted theme emerges, now seen in a fresh light. This sort of logical ordering, also, was typical, and "Swingdom Come" provides another instance. The ensembles are based on a 'freeing-up' (to adapt a later Russell title) of the kind of thematic idea found in the Workshop's "Livingston, I Presume?". Baker plays in a fluent post-JJ Johnson style, the phrases neatly dovetailing over the leader's unpredictable keyboard support. Young adds a second line, piano and bass become more insistent and a moment of crisis is reached during which the music could go in any direction; this is terminated by a downward glissando from Russell, and Young is off on his own solo; such tactics make an agreeable change from one soloist merely stopping and another starting. There are beautifully organised antiphonal calls in the "Beast Blues" ensembles and a particularly fine Kiger solo, a keening, muted lament, full of stoical inflections.

Deep-voiced ensembles

The eponymous piece on the Stratusphunk LP, which gets close to being a 12-tone 12-bar blues, receives no less eventful a performance than the famous Gil Evans "Out Of The Cool" version. Everyone solos, at two tempos, with concentrated point, aided by thematically derived backgrounds. One formal novelty is that recapitulation of the theme itself starts while Young is still soloing. Another is the final apotheosis of the "Lambskins" theme, an instance of a large-scale, almost symphonic, gesture unusual with small jazz bands. "Kentucky Oysters" (=chitterlings), an exuberant blues, indicates that the Sextet had no problems with 3/4 time, this being one of the most fluent pieces of non-4/4 jazz recorded up to that point (1960). "New Donna" has the peculiarly dense-voiced ensembles also found on the later "Stereophrenic" and the Stuttgart "Bags’ Groove", and Kiger is particularly enterprising in his variety of phrase-shapes. On "Bent Eagle", he draws long, thoughtful lines, isolated above the ostinato accompaniment. The integration of that ostinato into the performance as a whole, with its airy, striding ensembles, is an especially fine piece of craft. Kiger again shines on "Things New", racing around, as he does in "Moment's Notice", like a new-thing Navarro. One has a poor opinion of jazz when it throws away talents like his and Dave Young's.

On George Russell Sextet in KG – studio performances of items played during an engagement at the "Blue Room", Kansas City – Kiger is replaced by Don Ellis, who was then in the process of making his memorable How Time Passes LP for Candid. His trumpet solos on "Rhymes" and "Lunacy" are finely shaped and deploy the wide range of resources that was always to mark his jazz; feelings of space and of decisiveness are evident, as is a sense of adventure in his three "Sandu" choruses. Indeed, the Sextet's various blues performances are especially telling instances of the elimination of cliche from Russell's music. "War Gewessen" (German for ‘had been’) is a useful example of how the leader's special procedures affect all this music. This Baker piece includes 16-bar sections written and improvised in the C Auxilary Diminished blues scale, followed by the usual 12-bar blues in F. The Auxilary Diminished blues scale is one of the scales of the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation – its notes are C, C-sharp, D-sharp, E, F-sharp, G, A and A-sharp, and the intervals of this scale colour the whole of "War Gewessen".

Overall flexibility

Alone among the Sextet's LPs did Ezz-thetics achieve much reputation or circulation; yet it is in no way inferior to the others. Russell makes a striking orchestration of "Nardis" which draws out this theme's lyrical essence and puts to inventive use the bass clarinet of Eric Dolphy, who had replaced Young. Ellis's solo here may appear fragile, full of subtle shadings, but it has the strength of finely spun steel, and takes no cues from Miles Davis. "Thoughts" includes a stimulating dialogue between Baker and the ensemble, and much passing of the performance's main thread between the soloists and between them and the ensemble. This shows the kind of overall flexibility found in the later "Kige's Tune", with its long, abrasive ensembles, and "DC Divertimento". "Honesty" contains notable Dolphy alto, moving into and out of tempo; here, as during Ellis's solo, it is the out-of-tempo passages that are most exploratory, with commentaries from Russell's piano and Hunt's timpani.

For The Stratus Seekers LP Dolphy was replaced by John Pierce (alto) and Paul Plummer (tenor). These again had been members of the Indiana University Jazz Orchestra and Russell pupils. Ellis's "Pan-daddy" solo crackles with ideas, as do those of the saxes, and there is excellent Plummer on "Blues In Orbit". This latter seems intriguingly cut down to essentials if compared with Gil Evans's Svengali version of a dozen years later, where the complexly teetering thematic line is dressed in such rich textures. The eponymous "Stratus Seekers" track is a latter-day comment on bop's rapid unison themes, quite different from the Sextet's subsequent treatment of "Au Privave" and the Stuttgart "Confirmation". It draws relevant ideas from both saxophonists, though recording balance does not favour them.

Daring use of discontinuity

Among the Sextet's LPs only Ezz-thetics and The Outer View were issued in Britain. On the latter, Garnett Brown, replacing Baker, makes a more predictable use of JJ Johnson's (or Jimmy Cleveland's) methods, noticeably in "Au Privave". The ensemble smoothly negotiates some curiously abrupt switches of mood, and Ellis stabs boldly. He goes further in the "Outer View" track itself, making a daring use of discontinuity: it is not irrelevant to recall that the previous year, 1961, he had made his New Ideas LP for the New Jazz label, another rarely visited landmark. "DC Divertimento", with its polyphonic ensembles, was one of the best Russell compositions in the Sextet's repertoire, and it is encouraging that it came near the end. Commissioned for the First International Jazz Festival at Washington in 1962, the "Divertimento" is rich in different yet related aspects; repeatedly the music takes new turnings, ones that are surprising yet which relate to what – to all that – has gone before.

Properly, the recordings which a quite different edition of the Sextet made at Stuttgart in 1965 belong to the next phase of Russell's career, which took place in Europe. But George Russell Sextet at Beethoven Hall Vols 1 and 2 serve as an instructive postscript. The long, many-voiced meditation on "You Are My Sunshine", seemingly the least appropriate melody possible, clearly derives from the earlier one on The Outer View – which had included Sheila Jordan's highly introspective recording debut. At several tempos, with unaccompanied passages and a remarkable piano solo by the leader, this Stuttgart reading has, though, a life of its own. It says much for Russell's capacities as a teacher and bandleader that players such as Bertil Loewgren (trumpet), Brian Trentham (trombone) and Ray Pitts (tenor) had so well absorbed his methods. Pitts moves with unexpected confidence through the shifting tempos of "Freeing Up", where Trentham has an impressive duet with Russell, initially at two tempos at once. But, despite stinging contributions to "Confirmation" by Loewgren and Pitts, Don Cherry, the guest star, and Russell inevitably dominate. Hear their thorough, unconventional joint investigation of "Round About Midnight", which frankly is more searching than the brilliantly effective Dolphy version on Ezz-thetics.

Most of the Sextet's music teems with life and invention, creating its often oblique and occasionally rather disquieting impact through a world of sound that, while entirely fresh, relates directly to the modes of organisation which Russell had brought into being with his earlier works and which continued in his later. Although the main line of his development at this stage runs through the Sextet recordings, they were not the only achievement of this intensely creative period. Contemporaneous with them were two orchestral LPs, New York NY and Jazz In The Space Age. The latter is one of the peaks of Russell's entire career, but, like his European years, it must wait till next time.

(1) Quoted in Ira Gitler: Jazz Masters of the Forties (Macmillan, New York, 1966), page 235.
(2) Quoted in Joachim Berendt: The Jazz Book (Lawrence Hill, Westport, 1982), page 16.

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