The 80th Birthday Concert
By Jerry D'Souza
George Russell celebrated his 80th birthday in 2003, touring Europe with the Living Time Orchestra, and being well and truly appreciated, as indeed he should. Apart from his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, Russell has made several important recordings that are part of jazz history. In doing so he has translated theory into the vivid three-dimensional imagery that has been captured in his music.
The music still captures the imagination. It runs the gamut of several idioms, each of which fits into the other, the whole a marvel in shape and design, in the depth of its colors and the lucidity of its portraiture. Russell knows where to peg his focus; the Orchestra can resolve that vision, even in the shift of its personnel. But that precisely is the mark of its accomplishment: all who come in are part of the whole, even as they introduce an individualism.
And so it seems appropriate that Hiro Honshuku joined this tour to play both flute and electronics, the latter providing the perfect cast for “Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved by Nature.” The tune has been recorded using different conglomerations, but this big band does a spiffy take. The fanfare of the horns delves into funk, the lines crisscrossing before Andy Sheppard gives it the first defining edge with his solo, the rest of the brass bouncing off his lines. Sheppard has a big, at times brawny sound and a deep well of ideas that he draws from constantly, gripping attention. The twitter and the gurgle of electronics are loosened gradually by Honshuku as a shuddering beam pierces the silence, a skein that is interrupted by the wisps of sound that float out of his flute. The music breaks loose and convolves in the forlorn cry of Stanton Davis’s trumpet, the unhindered freedom of collective expression, and the seamless coordination of orchestration.
When The African Game was released in 1983, it had, quite understandably, another cast in the Orchestra. That was also a larger ensemble with a different combination of instruments. If the tunes took on another dimension then—the group had a bata section, for one thing—they certainly don’t lack in character this time. The light makes its presence slowly and softly, the gradual rising of the sun, the tips of the first ray harkening to a new dawn, a new day, filling its surroundings in measured gait and then the dance of arrival as another age dawns. The impact comes in the way Russell juxtaposes movements, keeping the balance at an even keel as his concepts of harmony and modality come into significance.
The suite is fired up by solos from Stanton, some gutbucket funk from Sheppard and Dave Bargeron on trombone, and Palle Mikkelborg's inspired presence on several of the tunes. Some of his best trumpet playing is showcased on the Orchestra’s show closer, “So What.” The horns are placed in a lush setting, and when Mikkelborg takes his turn, he blows soft wafts, breathy and seemingly fragile, yet the tensility is palpably present. The last facet becomes pronounced as he soars on to a heated plateau, the cycle of his invention now stunningly complete.
At the end of it all the music stands as testimony to the art and craft of George Russell.