George Russell (1923-2009), one of jazz's most mercurial arrangers, composers and theorists whose Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization in 1953 had an impact on three generations of jazz artists, died on July 27 of complications from Alzheimer's. He was 86.
Russell's earliest recorded arrangements included Cubano Be, Cubano Bop and Relaxin' at Camarillo for Dizzy Gillespie's big band of 1947 and A Bird in Igor's Yard for Buddy DeFranco in 1949. Russell also wrote Ezz-thetic, which was dedicated to heavyweight boxer Ezzard Charles and was first recorded by Lee Konitz in 1951.
After leaving the scene briefly in the very early 1950s, Russell invented a new approach to music and improvisation built on modal scales. During this period, Russell earned money by working in a Greenwich Village drugstore, where saxophonist Hal McKusick [pictured] ran into him:
"When I asked George what he was doing there, he told me he had a wife to support and that nothing was happening for him in the music business. Then he said he had hit upon something called the Lydian Theory. He asked if I wanted to hear it. I agreed, so I met him at his apartment nearby the next day.
"When I got there, George sat down at his upright piano and showed me that if you played in the key of C, it could have an F sharp instead of an F major, and so on. We went through all his altered modal scales. I dug what he was doing, and he asked if I wanted lessons. I told Barry [Galbraith, pictured] about it, and the two of us took three or four lessons with George until we got it.
"I asked George if he wanted to write a couple of songs for my quartet. He said sure. So he wrote Lydian Lullaby and The Day John Brown Was Hanged. When I ran into Jack Lewis, who was RCA's A&R guy at the time, I told him about George. Jack asked me if I was sure I wanted to get involved with George, who hadn't really recorded anything significant in some time. I told Jack that George's material was fresh and that he had a good thing going.
"I told Jack to come out and hear the group. When he did, he was blown away. Soon afterward we recorded The Jazz Workshop for RCA in March 1956, and then RCA signed George. It's funny, our chance meeting at that drugstore put George back in the music business."
In 1957, Russell arranged part of a seminal session known as the Brandeis Jazz Festival Project, which featured a large band that included Art Farmer, Hal McKusick, Jimmy Knepper, Teddy Charles, Barry Galbraith, Teo Macero (who would go on to produce Miles Davis' modal works for Columbia) and Bill Evans. The session further exposed Evans (and Macero) to modal music. Evans in turn exposed Miles Davis to the new approach the following year.
In 1958, on New York, New York, Russell was joined by another all-star jazz team that included Hal McKusick, John Coltrane, Bob Brookmeyer and Bill Evans. In 1961, Russell's album Ezz-thetics for Riverside Records was a tour de force in experimental music, as was his work with Don Cherry in the 1960s. In fact, much of free jazz and later jazz-rock fusion was built on Russell's modal approach, which gave musicians much more room to improvise without the restriction of chord changes.
"The Lydian Theory revolves around using the raised 4th (or, flat 5th) of a scale. For example, C employs the F-sharp of the key signature of G (C,D,E,F#,G,A,B,C). So the two scales are related. Early 20th century classical atonal composers used this, and certainly Bird [Charlie Parker], with his outstanding talent, heard beyond that.
"I liked George's Ezz-thetic, which was based on Love For Sale. Lee Konitz had already recorded it when I met George at that drugstore, and I thought it would be a good piece for Art Farmer and me. George brought it to us and that's how our relationship began. George was soft-spoken and determined in his way to bring his concept to musicians and gain public acceptance."
Pepper and salt water. Following my post on Art Pepper and the new three-CD compilation, The Art History Project, Pepper's widow Laurie sent along the following note. Her comment is in response to my observation that Pepper seemed to channel the California sun and surf in his 1950s playing:
Med Flory. After my post on Med Flory [pictured], long-time reader and pianist George Ziskind dropped a line:
Walter Bishop Jr. In the late 1970s, jazz videographer Bret Primack befriended pianist Walter Bishop Jr. and wrote a profile of him for Down Beat. Now Bret has assembled a "Bish" video tribute page along with a bio. Go here.
Cambodian pop-rock. Close friend Glenn Boornazian, an architectural preservationist who is at work restoring Angkor Wat in Cambodia, e-mailed a link to a fascinating BBC radio podcast. It's on Cambodia's short-lived 1960s pop-rock scene, before the Khmer Rouge took power and extinguished the music and those who played it. You'll find the podcast here.
CD discovery of the week. My friend Ivan Acosta turned me on to Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda. Nearly two years ago Ivan invited me to a concert he produced at Town Hall, and Castaneda was on the bill. Cataneda's performance was absolutely mesmerizing, and he brought the audience to its feet.
Castaneda plays the harp—but he plays it more like a Spanish guitar than the instrument found in classical orchestras. His technique is truly extraordinary, as he seems to do the impossible on the instrument with tremendous soul and feeling. On his new release, Entre Cuerdas, Castaneda records eight originals and one by Marshall Gilkes, the trombonist on the date. Each track is moving, deeply passionate and highly rhythmic. There are harp bass lines here, melodies and harmonies along with influences from Cuba, Brazil and Colombia. Joining Castaneda and Gilkes on the date are Dave Silliman (drums), John Scofield (guitar), Adrea Tierra (vocal), Joe Locke (vibes) and Samuel Torres (cajon).
This is extraordinarily beautiful music, and you won't believe your ears. You'll find Entre Cuerdas here at ArtistShare along with a video clip.
Oddball album cover of the week. Elliot Lawrence led fabulous big bands in the 1950s. In 1958, he recorded Music for Trapping for Top Rank Records with Urbie Green (trombone), Andy Fitzgerald (alto sax and clarinet), Hal McKusick (alto sax), Zoot Sims and Al Howard (tenor sax), Stan Webb (baritone sax), Elliot Lawrence (piano), Mary Osborne (guitar), Russ Saunders and Buddy Jones (bass) and Don Lamond and Sol Gubin (drums). I'm not sure what's more odd—that the stuffed and mounted female heads on the wall are gleeful or that the newly trapped prey doesn't seem overly shocked by her fate or the empty plaque that awaits her preserved noggin.