Excerpt from "The Gravity Man" by Alice Dragoon           Back to Press

It was 1943 and 20-year-old George Russell was making his living playing drums with Benny Carter's band. ("It was the war years," he jokes). Then Max Roach came along, and Russell was replaced. "I knew I could never be the best drummer-I'd just heard the best," he says. Russell turned instead to writing and arranging and moved to New York.

Roach introduced him to everybody on 52nd Street and Russell became part of the inner circle that included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. One conversation with Davis left him stunned. Russell asked the young trumpeter about his chief aim in music. "Miles said he was going to learn all the chords, " Russell remembers. "Well, everyone in music thought Miles knew how to play all the chords." Most musicians at that time relied heaving upon arrpegiating to create melodies, so Davis's goal stuck in his mind. "I wondered how he would go about doing that, and what he meant by it," Russell recalls.

Russell's wondering led to his famous intuition that every chord had a scale of unity, or a parent scale. Long about then, he became ill and had to forego an opportunity to join Charlie Parker's quintet. While hospitalized, Russell was experimenting with the Lydian scale, a tonal progression that had been largely ignored since the 18th century. One day he played first the C major scale and then the C Lydian scale in thirds and immediately realized that the major scale seemed incomplete and unresolved. By comparison, the Lydian structure sounded unified with a C major chord, or the tonic C. For Russell, it became obvious that the "natural" forth of the major scale prevents it from sounding final. Since the scale does not resolve until it reaches its tonic major chord, the major scale is marked by a sense of striving. This is very obvious when the major scale is played in thirds. Conversely, the Lydian scale sounds resolved when played in thirds because its raised fourth completes a ladder of perfect fifths. The power of the Lydian mode, Russell realized, is freedom from time's restraints. The major scale is in a state of becoming. The Lydian scale already is. This being-there versus getting-there discovery led Russell to articulate the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, which defines music as "cosmic gravity manifesting in the realm of sound." Arranging the tones of the Lydian scale in a ladder of fifths, the theory goes, creates a unified tonal "gravity field." Every tone in a ladder of fifths is supported by the lowest rung of the ladder because the lower tone of an interval of a fifth is always the tonic of the interval. The lowest tone of a ladder of fifths, therefore, is the fundamental "do" for the series of tones above it, whether it is a Lydian scale or the entire Lydian chromatic order--essentially a ladder of fifths that ascends above the Lydian scale with the potential of spanning every note on a piano keyboard, or all of equal temperament. Russell classifies music--or, for simplicity's sake, a melody, in terms of its relationship to the fundamental "do," which he calls the center of gravity. The higher the Lydian chromatic ladder ascends, the weaker the relationships of the tones to the fundamental "do." Melodies like "The Star Spangled Banner" that stay within the first seven tones of the Lydian chromatic order of fifths (the Lydian scale) are called "ingoing" and tend to sound what is traditionally called harmonious. As a composer expands to a universe that includes all 12 tones of the Lydian Chromatic Scale, the melody becomes "outgoing" and starts to sound more expansive and less familiar. Part of what makes Russell's theory so interesting is his contention that even he most "outgoing" music conforms to the laws of gravity. Although the relationship may be distant and thus difficult to perceive, the melody always relates to a tonic. "Just because it's night does not mean the sun is not still there," goes his argument against atonality. "The sun is still the center of gravity, holding the planets together." Russell's paradigm is also intriguing because nothing is ever "right" or "wrong," just justified and organized. Once composers and improvisers understand the structure, they are free to choose whether to be ingoing or outgoing or both. Russell maintains that every piece of music has a tonic and fits into one of three structures controlled by the laws of gravity: vertical (the melody relates to each chord), horizontal (the melody foreshadows the cadential, or tonic station, chord), or supra-vertical (horizontal, vertical, ingoing and outgoing).

Any confusion fades away as you listen to Russell's music. For the ground breaking composer of "Cuban Be/Cubano Bop," "A Bird in Igor's Yard," and "The African Game," theory and composition have become one. First published in 1953, Russell's book fundamentally changed the nature of jazz by providing an objective framework for analyzing all music. That objectivity, Russell contends, empowers creativity. Jazz history ha proved him right. His first book sparked a revolution of modal improvisation that influenced the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Art Farmer and every subsequent generation. Japanese composer, the late Toru Takemitsu, made his own translation of the book and was greatly influenced by it. Miles Davis remarked to Russell, "George, if Bird were alive, this would kill him." As Russell looks to the future, he urges those who would be leaders in jazz (and, indeed, in all music) to avoid being content with interpreting and perpetuating the classics. Part of what killed Charlie Parker be maintains, was frustration that his playing was not evolving. Russell fears that the commercialism of jazz has made it more difficult for innovators because the parameters of marketable music have been so well defined by record producers. "I think we have to try to keep ourselves from becoming mechanical. We have to fight for our innate essence, keep it alive. I don't know if I've done that, but in the Concept, I know I've provided a way for other people to renew themselves."

Ultimately, musicians must achieve a balance between innovation and marketability, just as the ideal music must, In Russell's view, balance the "getting there" quality of the major mode with the "being there" nature of the Lydian mode. In fact, he suspects that higher levels of organization may dominate other disciplines and life, in general. "You can't get to unity by just the horizontal force alone. People need unity--to feel in touch with life, the world, nature." In his view, life and gravity are inexorably linked. "I don't know specifically how, but I feel it in my soul. It's all one, anyway. Music should be a part of the whole."

Excerpted from "The Gravity Man" by Alice Dragoon, NEC Notes
by the Trustees of the New England Conservatory of Music