The 80th Birthday Concert
by Dan Rose
7 November 2005
George Russell is one of those shadowy figures in jazz history. He's name-checked as an influence. He's credited with adding or even changing that history. However, he's seldom heard. Like most important shadows, the reasons for this obscurity are more than a little convoluted. Recurring illness dogged him early, forcing him into inactivity just when he might ascend. His idea of jazz ain't easy to swallow; being a free thinker led him into the rarefied air of the contemporary composer and a tendency to combine the most disparate elements of the music. However, he's not the dogged avant-gardist the free-ist thinkers might want. His idiom is the unwieldy and out of fashion big band or large ensemble. In the end, he's known more as a theoretician and author, putting to paper ideas that would influence the likes of Miles Davis and Michael Jackson.
This release, a two-disc compilation of live tracks from his 80th birthday celebration, gives an overview of what many have been missing. It's a career-spanning event documenting Russell conducting his 20-years-plus big band project, The Living Time Orchestra. This shadow is alive and very much kicking. Disc one starts sweet. Palle Mikkelborg begins with a wonderfully evocative solo trumpet. When the band joins slowly behind him, they create an impressionistic texture that is both soothing and rife with creative tension—no mean feat. Other soloists rise and fall behind him, either in dialogue with Mikkelborg or playing a propulsive riff in counterpoint. The whole, way too short tune displays a composer who is a master of using the full palette of his band, a composer who juggles dynamics and tension in a way that pulls at the listener and begs for repeated listening.
After a small speech (Russell sounds frail, though very much aware), the much lauded (well, as lauded as the criminally marginalized can be) “Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature” begins a little sour. After a humorous rap/chant a la Sun Ra, the tune goes all late period Miles Davis jazz funk. Just before the sonic ipecac can do its damage, we're saved by a quiet, electronic interlude. So gorgeous is this, all is forgiven. Quiescence gives way to a running bass line, electronic scribbles, and varied atonal horn passages. There's a slow build and intensity, a bit free jazz meets Stravinsky. Bracing in the best way. Then the funk returns, though this time it's an engaging vamp. After a brief interlude into chamber jazz, a prog-like episode, and finally we're brought home with a meaty big band stomp (with some nifty atonality for spice). It's the long way home, with only one misstep.
Disc two starts with an even longer trek through jazz varieties. Here free jazz squiggle meets New Orleans romp, then moves into more big band funk, stops off at an ambient soundscape (with the incredible Mikkelborg dueting with Mike Walker's guitar) and takes several forays into big band swing and storm before exploding to a stop. In the space of 40 minutes, the past, present, and near future of jazz, particularly the large ensemble variety, is masterfully woven into one big, bright tapestry. The disc closes with a wonderful head scratcher. It's a piece built on a Miles Davis solo from his tune “So What”. Sounding little like the signature tune (hints appear here and there, like something stubbornly half remembered), Russell does what he does best. He finds textures and colors hidden to everyone but him and transcribes that to wide sounds. Remarkably, it seems to grow organically, more biosphere than big band gig.
Here are two discs crammed with ideas. Ideas mean little if the mind that crafted them is slight. If sometimes overreaching and a little too inclusive, Russell is anything but slight. He's both historian and history maker. To these ears, there are bits of that history I'd like to forget (see lowbrow jazz funk). That said, the level of creative imagination, musical sophistication, and sheer daring Russell seems to effortlessly evoke steals the breath. His band ain't too shabby, either.