George Russell’s First Three Records as a Leader

George Russell was an architect of the music, a key associate of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, and the author of the technical treatise The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. Early Russell compositions (“Cubano Be, Cubano Bop”) and arrangements (“Relaxin’ at Camarillo”) from the bebop era retain their power to shock and amaze.

Russell played piano and drums but rarely featured his own capabilities as a soloist. In the liner notes of his first album, Russell talks about the rise of the “jazz writers” in the late ’40s and early ’50s, and quotes Gunther Schuller: “We must begin to think of form as a verb rather than as a noun.” Along with Schuller, Gil Evans, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Lennie Tristano, John Lewis, and many others of lesser fame of that era, Russell was frankly seeking to inject more European techniques into bop.

The Jazz Workshop

Recorded late 1956. The core musicians of the Smalltet are Art Farmer, Hal McKusick, Barry Galbraith, and Bill Evans. A rotating cast of bass and drums includes Milt Hinton, Teddy Kotick, Joe Harris, Osie Johnson, and Paul Motian, who with some exceptions are usually playing reasonably straight swinging time underneath busy counterpoint and fast-moving changes.

Russell gives a lot of written notes to his front line. Farmer, McKusick, Galbraith, and Evans are looking at charts that are not far from European chamber music. One of the delights of The Jazz Workshop is simply the flawless execution of the parts, which are not easy to begin with, but also need to swing. After dispatching the written material, Farmer, McKusick, Galbraith, and Evans then take great solos, often short in duration, but still full of proper jazz talk. Incredible band.

“Ye Hypocrite, Ye Beelzebub” A bit of spiritual in 6/4 foreshadows Charles Mingus’s “Better Git It in Your Soul” from a few years later. The solos are in 4/4. Some of my favorite Bill Evans is as a bebop x-factor within a larger ensemble, as on John Lewis’s Odds Against Tomorrow, Tadd Dameron’s The Magic Touch, and Russell’s The Jazz Workshop.

“Jack’s Blues” Third Stream melancholy. Everyone is reading a thick part, including Evans. There are tempo changes and unusual effects, somewhere between Thelonious Monk and Russell’s teacher Stefan Wolpe. Russell’s liner notes are technical; in this case he writes that the “thematic development is based on the interval of the major second.” Yeah, but who was Jack?

“Livingstone I Presume” The piano has a crunchy motif reminiscent of Béla Bartók. Joe Harris plays a surprising 6/8 drum rhythm (called “jungle” in the notes); with the wild alto line it sounds like 2022 music from somebody like Steve Lehman. The blowing reverts to 4/4, but there are always stops, starts, and counterpoint.

“Ezz-Thetic” One of Russell’s best known compositions, a Tristano-ish line on “Love for Sale,” also recorded earlier by Lee Konitz with Miles Davis and later by Grant Green with Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, and Elvin Jones. The relationship between Billy Bauer with Tristano and Galbraith with Russell is obvious. As with Tristano’s composed lines, one can hear the effort required to bring “atonal” notes and phrases into the bop language. Gorgeous. McKusick sounds great, somewhere in the Konitz/Desmond soundscape but totally fluid and with some surprising note choices.

“Night Sound” A kind of blues piece with fully written out rhythm section parts and endlessly turning horn phrases. Evocative and smoky noir verging on atonality. Maybe my favorite track on this album. Unique music. Milt Hinton buffs will enjoy hearing the legendary bassist play such a long and complicated part perfectly; he also bows the final note. Right on, Milt.

“Round Johnny Rondo” Gotta say, I’d never guess that this is Paul Motian swinging out on this track like he’s Philly Joe Jones or Art Blakey. It shows how much Paul worked at becoming an idiosyncratic voice. The contrapuntal melody is ridiculous, and Art Farmer takes a particularly fine solo.

“Fellow Delegates” The longest track on the LP features Osie Johnson on wood drums and Russell himself on chromatic drums tuned to a “blues scale.” McKusick is on flute and Farmer is on muted trumpet. H’mm! Assemble, delegates: the workshop is in session.

“Witch Hunt” As with “Round Johnny Rondo,” the drummer is a surprise: I’d never guess this conventional and well-done latin beat was from the young Paul Motian. The theme is another charismatic contrapuntal maze, while the chords for the solos are again on the busy side. If I have a criticism of this wonderful music, it is that the solo sections can feel a little blocky and relentless in their harmonic motion, “Giant Steps” but without Coltrane’s inevitable logic. It’s hip as hell but just a shade constricting for improvised creativity. Russell himself would help inspire the modal movement, and eventually would adopt more open and modal structures himself. Something like “Witch Hunt” shows the road that was not taken — a road not taken for a reason.

“The Sad Sergeant” Russell writes, “The military and the blues theme is maintained throughout the composition.” It is so cute and adorable to hear Bill fucking Evans playing these complicated written parts.

“Knights of the Steamtable” Dedicated to Russell’s local musician’s union. Have I read of a jazz cat dedicating a tune to the union before? According the notes, Farmer is playing polytonally in his solo, but it doesn’t scan as that “out” to my ears. Beautiful trumpet.

“Ballad of Hix Blewitt” The notes say, “This composition is dedicated to the memory of a friend who possessed a legendary quality…I felt that he was a combination of the West, the blues, and good Dixie humor.” The piece begins as the least “jazzy” on the date, the drums lay out as flute, guitar, and piano intertwine. Hell of a blindfold test. The Brooklyn jazz kids are trying to compose music like this in 2022. The bitonal bluesy piano is awesome (probably all written out?) and the comic “Dixie” touch is silly indeed.

“Concerto for Billy the Kid” The Jazz Workshop would have been one of the earliest LPs where Bill Evans got a chance to make an impact with jazz listeners. The burning piano cadenzas over II/Vs (based on “I’ll Remember April” in F) show how well Evans understood Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano.

1956 is right around a turning point for recorded sound. Things were improving fast, and there’s something about the instruments in the room for The Jazz Workshop which is just perfect. In the notes, Russell compliments engineer Ray Hall.

New York, N.Y.

The next disc is a concept album celebrating the Big Apple in 1959. The instrumentation is for full big band, and the featured soloists include Jon Hendricks, who sings/speaks introductions to every piece, called “narration” on the LP jacket. Hendricks’s poetic/amusing contribution is a highlight of the disc. It really does feel like midcentury New York City…

“Manhattan” (Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers) Hendricks enthuses over Charli Persip’s solid beat. When the tune comes in, the writing in the horns is quite dense and contrapuntal. Unlike the previous album, the tracks are quite long, and the soloists have more room to build a statement. The Bob Brookmeyer (then Brookmeyer/Frank Rehak), Bill Evans, and John Coltrane improvisations all begin duo with Milt Hinton. It’s quite a journey with these major voices interacting with Russell’s complex backgrounds featuring a wall of brass, fleet saxophones, tuba and guitar. The original Rodgers and Hart ditty is left far behind. Art Farmer plays well too, while Coltrane offers some shapes over a vamp near the end. A modernist piano cadenza (is Evans reading these outlandish chords from paper?) leads into

“Big City Blues” The tempo slows as Hendricks’s beat poetry takes a rueful turn. The syncopated bass line is long and written out, I can’t think of any other jazz from this era where the bassist would have to read quite like this. Kudos to Milt Hilton! There’s about six minutes of obscure modernist blues before Benny Golson seizes the day for some superlative breathy tenor. Art Farmer and Bill Evans also shine in solo statements. The horn writing is quite challenging and complex. Impressive music.

Manhattan: “Rico” In the previous decade, Russell had been there for the latin jazz innovations of Dizzy Gillespie, even writing a key work for the movement, “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop.” For the current offering, Hendricks talks about the price of plane ticket from Puerto Rico to New York over multiple drummers including the bongos of Al Epstein, Russell’s own chromatic drums, and the conventional but convincing kit of Don Lamond. As the piece proceeds, a kind of suite of different moods emerges, with fine solos from Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Evans, Phil Woods, and Art Farmer.

East Side Medley: “Autumn in New York”/”How About You?” (Vernon Duke, Ira Gershwin)/(Ralph Freed, Burton Lane) Hendricks explains that some New York denizens like to stay inside. Evans plays solo for time, really abstract and beautiful, setting up a poetic solo piano chorus of “Autumn in New York.” Hinton and Persip ease in — too bad there isn’t a record of this Evans trio! After horn commentary featuring those mysterious Russell lines, the tempo picks up and the piano trio offers “How About You,” which then moves into the horns and points exploratory.

“A Helluva Town” In the liner notes, Russell tells Burt Korall that he quit playing serious drums because of the great Max Roach. Roach shows up to give New York N.Y. its big finish on “A Helluva Town.” The drum solos are naturally spectacular (and seem to be connected to the opening Hendricks rave about the tempo of the city) but it’s not just Roach, there’s a splendid focus to this chart overall. Love those fast and wild Russell lines in the band.

While New York, N.Y. is an undeniable achievement, I rank it just behind The Jazz Workshop. Paradoxically, the many horns seem diminish the forward motion found on the first LP. When it is just McKusick playing one of Russell’s thorny lines, the lone musician has all the room to phrase it just so. When McKusick is joined by four other saxes, it all becomes a bit more fussy. There are other factors: The sonics aren’t sorted quite as well on the first LP (Bill Evans and Milt Hinton playing duo have more presence than the full band shout) and there are some awkward edits.

On the final track, Max Roach puts the horns in their place and the music drives forward. Offhand I can’t think of Max with a big band featured like this somewhere else, so New York, N.Y. still gets 11/10.

Jazz in the Space Age

(Full disclosure: This week, David Virelles and I will be playing Jazz in the Space Age with Pedro Guedes leading the Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos for concerts in Porto and Madrid.)

The general aesthetic style of The Jazz Workshop and New York, N.Y. is similar. It’s all advanced music but the harmonic and rhythmic ideas are not far removed from common practice.

Things take a turn for the abstract in Jazz for the Space Age in 1960. In the notes, Russell suggests jazz will have a “pan-rhythmic and pan-tonal future,” and the far-out cover art is of a piece with other Eisenhower-to-Kennedy era modernist pop such as the Norge ball.

The nascent jazz education movement is also a visible new element. Three of the horn soloists, Al Kiger, Dave Young, and David Baker, were imported from the Indianapolis/Indiana University scene, and all three would appear within the same year as the front line of the important George Russell Sextet. Russell met Kiger and Baker when teaching at the legendary Lenox Jazz Workshop in Massachusetts, the same summer when Ornette Coleman was a student. Baker, a founding father of jazz education as we know it, would establish his beachhead at IU-Bloomington later in the 1960s. There’s quite a lot about Russell and this era in Monika Herzig’s valuable biography, David Baker: A Legacy in Music.

Bill Evans gets the credit on the cover and in the liners, but Paul Bley is right in the mix on all three “Chromatic Universes.” Again, there is a Lenox connection: Bley arrived just in time at the workshop, driving from California, to join in on the last tune and make an impression. In his autobiography Stopping Time, Bley claimed he got a few years worth of work in New York from sitting in on one tune at Lenox. Bley’s extended comment on Jazz in the Space Age is amusing, although it must be said that Bley also liked to tell a tall tale.

…there was a phone call from George Russell inviting me to be part of a project for Decca records. It was a piece for two pianos and orchestra, which involved a lot of written music. There was one condition. A large orchestral score went with the gig, and if I’d come over he’d give me the score. I’d have thirty days to practice it and return it to his apartment, at which time I would play the score. If I made a single mistake, the assignment would be given to another pianist.

I took the score home and went into the music room and Carla put trays of food under the door for the next thirty days. When I went back to his apartment there was no question of whether I would make a mistake. I hadn’t just learned it, I was that music. I played the score without the slightest hesitation and went to the record date for Decca Records. Bill Evans was on piano A and I was on piano B.

….By the time of the George Russell session, he [Bill Evans] was everybody’s favorite pianist, and rightly so. Riverside Records had even called one of his albums Everybody Digs Bill Evans.

The piece called for a lot of improvising by the two pianists, in three of four lengthy non-orchestral sections, accompanied by George playing strung beads pulled over the surface of small drums, and a rhythm section playing odd meters….We started with the rhythm section playing this very off rhythm. This was my universe — rhythm sections that played wrong, no harmony or melody given. This was the atmosphere that I normally breathed, and what flashed through my mind was, now, am I going to make it easy for Bill, or am I going to make it hard for Bill?

Because everybody loved Bill Evans. He already owned 99 percent of the jazz piano business. And I was hoping to get a corner on some part of the one percent that was left. So I threw the kitchen sink at him in the first phase — and I was appalled to hear him throw it right back at me. The was good and bad news.

The whole date went like that. No matter what I did, Bill was right there tossing it back — leading, following, doing everything George could have hoped for. After the first take, as the rhythm section faded out, George rushed up and kissed us on both cheeks and said no one had ever played his music properly before. The rest of the date went fine. The orchestral music was read correctly, there were three or four more long two-piano-with-rhythm sections, and we all left in a blaze of glory.

“Chromatic Universe, Part 1” Several pieces on the disc share the same moody introductory celeste chord accompanied by Russell on rustling chromatic drums. A fierce odd-meter vamp is established from Milt Hinton and Don Lamond, and we are off into a signature sound of the album, Evans and Bley playing together as one.

“Dimensions” Starts as a beautiful blues ballad with Dave Young in the lead, who has a lovely tone on tenor. The tempo picks up and now we are in the spacey up-tempo jazz that was Russell’s favored flavor: Kansas City swing but with Bartók in the bass line. Charli Persip is particularly fine on this track.

More than on New York, N.Y., the long compositions on Jazz in the Space Age have the through-line of inevitability. Evans takes a long ocatonic solo, one can hear him wrestling the very non-bop harmonic progression into something more like Bud. Trumpeter Al Kiger plays a good solo, as does Dave Young. (The students are working out, although I wish Hal McKusick, present in the horn section on all three albums, had gotten one more airy alto solo on a Russell record, considering how good he sounds on The Jazz Workshop.) The pianists don’t comp behind the horn solos, rather it’s all Hinton and Persip, with varied Russell horn backgrounds protruding at the right time.

“Chromatic Universe, Part 2” The three “Chromatic Universes” aren’t that different, the vamp is the same, but there are more horns with each reprise.

“The Lydiot” momentarily features another bass and drums vamp which is almost as challenging as the vamp of “Chromatic Universe.” I’d be curious to learn how hard it was for Milt Hinton and Don Lamond to play these odd meter vamps….maybe they had to practice, or maybe they could read it down.

In 1960, writing in 5/2 for forces wasn’t a viable option, so Russell writes 4/4 horn melodies against the vamp. In “The Lydiot” this technique is particularly successful, the horns build up a quite a bit of steam, somewhere between Charles Ives and Charles Mingus.

This is the first solo from David Baker on record, who trades off with Frank Rehak.

“Waltz from Outer Space” The melodic material is even more attractive than usual, bluesy yet atonal double time passages, call and response in the trumpets and saxes. Most of the piano blowing on the disc is linear, but for a moment Evans stops and plays some lovely locked hand modal chords, similar to his famous improvisation on “So What.”

“Chromatic Universe, Part 3” More of the chaos. The space ship recedes into the distance…

The three expanded band pieces on Jazz in the Space Age, “Dimensions,” “The Lydiot,” and “Waltz from Outer Space,” are really their own thing and seem to bring the Russell aesthetic to its fullest expression so far. The “Chromatic Universes” have Bill Evans and Paul Bley sounding like one wild four-handed pianist. All in all, a fitting capstone to Russell’s early large ensemble period.

(Bonus track no. 1)

Three standalone features for Evans, Eric Dolphy, and Shelia Jordan are in my personal pantheon.

“All About Rosie” A magnificent three-part work that opens the Gunther Schuller-conceived Modern Jazz Concert: Six Compositions Commissioned by the 1957 Brandeis University Festival of the Arts. The first two movements are contrapuntal and bluesy, classic Russell, and then Bill Evans lets fly in the third movement.

“Round Midnight” and “You Are My Sunshine” are two arrangements I’ve known since my teenage acquisition of the two-fer Outer Thoughts, a compilation of the Riverside LPs Ezz-Thetic and The Outer View. All the music from the Russell sextet is interesting, but these showcases for Dolphy and Jordan are truly special. Re-listening now I’m noticing how much piano Russell is playing in support of his ensemble. Sounds good, George!

(Bonus track no. 2)

Bill Evans and George Russell collaborated on a later occasion, Living Time from 1972. While credited as an Evans album, this ambitious and frankly quite messy project is obviously Russell’s baby just as much as Jazz in the Space Age. Every piece is simply called an “Event” (“Event I,” “Event II” and so forth) and most of the record is heavy on vamps, rock beats, drones, and exotic instrumentation.

The large ensemble has some extraordinary names (Joe Henderson, Sam Rivers, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams for starters) but there are hardly any conventional jazz solos, even for the star pianist. (JoHen peeks out of the texture a bit on “Event V.”)

For that matter, there is not much conventional composition, either. In the notes, Orrin Keepnews explains that Russell is using “cycles,” which suggests that Russell was not armed with all that much music paper in the studio, but instead came up with many of the repetitive textures and riffs on the spot. Russell is quoted as saying, “It’s as if I were creating an improvised sculpture.”

In the realm of total speculation: Evans is reading a sophisticated vamp on almost every “Event.” Perhaps Russell brought in those reasonably detailed piano vamps and orchestrated them in the studio with the help of Carl Atkins, credited as Russell’s assistant in large print and photographed with Russell and Evans’s manager Helen Keane. (“Carl! Give the saxophones the middle line while I find the right mute for the trumpets.”)

Of course, this loose way of working is very 1972. One of Russell’s few peers, Gil Evans, went on a similar path, writing fewer pages for the full band around this time and later.

Maybe I’m mellowing with age, but I like Living Time a lot more than I used to. Formerly I considered the whole LP essentially a write-off, but now I can appreciate how Evans and Russell are dancing with the zeitgeist. Jazz in the Space Age is indisputably the greater album, but Living Time can also claim a proper place in the library of cool weird music.