Jazz CD Reviews

GEORGE RUSSELL Box Set – Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint & Soul Note – CAM (9 CDs)

One of the wildest avant-garde jazz artists (and pianists) of the last 50 years.

Published on February 1, 2012

GEORGE RUSSELL Box Set – Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint & Soul Note – CAM (9 CDs)

GEORGE RUSSELL Box Set – Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint & Soul Note [TrackList follows] CAM London BXS 1005 (Dist. by Harmonia mundi) (9 CDs) – About 9 hours ***:

Hold onto your seats for this one. George Russell (1923–2009) was one of the wildest avant-garde jazz artists (and pianists) of the last 50 years. His collection of nine CDs (SRP: $80) will give you more than a taste of his compositional techniques, which largely consisted of expansive ideas, sporadic brilliance, a few misguided assignments, exhilarating digressions, and some memorable suites.

For example, he recorded one composition twice, “Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature (1968, 1980).” The first rendition is exuberant, composed of many different styles of music, including fragments of rock, blues, jazz, and serial music. His musicians are first rate, but they go off in expressive directions typical of the time (and sometimes never come back). The second is equal to the first in creativity, but you can see the difference 12 years makes, with a whole new sextet and instrumental switches like an electronic bass for an acoustic. Unlike the Hollywood remake (e.g., the American film Let Me In for the original Swedish Let The Right One In), this is not a frame-by-frame remake, but an entire re-imagining. The second version seems tighter and more polished, but both are worth listening to.

Russell was commissioned to write several pieces, one of them being the execrable Listen to the Silence. Ostensibly a mass for orchestra and chorus for the Norwegian Cultural Fund, it’s virtually unlistenable today (or maybe was even then). It consists of long book recitations (like one from Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) backed by thinly-orchestrated music. You may want to pass this one up (or play it last) . . . unless you’re ultra-tolerant musically.

Russell’s forays into big band setups are partially successful. George Russell New York Band makes use of noisy ensemble playing and at times it is very chaotic. Then suddenly, the listener is sent on a melodic journey that seems nice and has a direction, perhaps reminiscent of a previous big band era. For a while. Russell then plays the piano for a few minutes, quite competently but not brilliantly, lulling the listener into a sense of familiarity. Solo sections are intriguing, and soon some creative background accompaniment emerges. But more often than not, he overuses his big band. “Big City Blues” does feature a great singer now lost to the past, Lee Genesis. She really heats up the room. A live disc featuring the same band, Live in an American Time Spiral, features a similar mixture of brilliance and overkill. The four trumpet players provide trace levels of inspiration, but often they either don’t know when to stop or they just fade into the background. If you like big band music, these discs—recorded in the early 80s—may be of passing interest or they may seem anachronistic. However, if you listen long enough, you will find impressive solo work.

Vertical Form VI is another CD featuring a jazz orchestra with over two dozen members. It takes time to purge itself of musical excesses, but once it does, it explores interesting sonic territory. The Othello Ballet Suite may be the most successful work in this collection, as it portrays psychological states and varies tempo and dynamics with the skill of a master.

After listening to this hefty sampling of Russell’s musical compositions, I remember what the old timers always said about New England weather: if you don’t like it, wait a minute.

TrackList:
Includes the following albums:

  • Electronic Sonata Four Souls Loved By Nature 1980
  • Othello Ballet Suite / Electronic Organ Sonata No. 1
  • Vertical Form VI
  • Listen To The Silence
  • Trip To Prillarguri
  • Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved By Nature 1968
  • New York Big Band
  • The Essence Of George Russell
  • Live in An American Time Spiral

—Peter Bates




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