The 80th Birthday Concert
By Scott Bill Shoemaker
Even before the genius of George Russell sinks in, hearing The Living Time Orchestra live is an incredible sonic experience, one best approximated by the onomatopoeia used in comic books to describe the mighty blows of superheroes. Recorded at undisclosed dates on the celebratory 2003 European tour, The 80th Birthday Concert conveys the POW!, BLAM! and THWACK! that is as essential to Russell's music as its profound conceptual underpinnings. The engineering also emphasizes the infectious groove that has propelled much of Russell's music since the mid-1960s. These aspects of Russell's music allow his ominous vertical stacks and jabbing lines to be absorbed by the listener without being pigeonholed as avant-garde conceits. In doing so, Russell has reconciled the dualism of high art and people's music that has dogged jazz for decades with an unparalleled elegance.
While Americans like trumpeter Stanton Davis and trombonist Dave Bargeron still play key roles in Russell's orchestra, Europeans like trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg and tenor saxophonist Andy Sheppard are Russell's go-to soloists. Between them, they take 11 of the 21 solos on this 2-CD set. Mikkelborg has the Miliesian touch, whether he etching delicate lines into the synth and electronics washes of “Listen to the Silence,” or capering on “So What.” Jan Garbarek may have set a high bar for the tenor soloist on the original recording of “Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature,” but Sheppard raises it with each of the two solos allotted him. On the almost 40-minute reading of “The African Game,” the solos of Brits like saxophonist Chris Biscoe, keyboardist Steve Lodder, and guitarist Mike Walker, contribute substantially to this panoramic work.
For all of its profundity, beauty and swing, The 80th Birthday Concert is simply a precis of George Russell's contribution to American music and culture. For a fuller rendering, seek out as many of his recordings as possible.
And, here's the reprinting of his 1999 essay from the LoC: