Thursday, November 17, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #7

George Russell's Living Time Orchestra
The 80th Birthday Concert

I wish George Russell would record more often. He was jazz's first theoretician, and he remains one of its most influential composers. His ideas contributed significantly to the development of both Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and his Lydian Chromatic Concept has alternately confounded and inspired musicians for half a century.

Ten years ago, a French label released two albums from Russell's Living Time Orchestra, one of which included his last (to date) new composition, "It's About Time." That was back when Tower Records maintained a significant presence in Boston and regularly stocked imports; and I was lucky enough to have a friend who had studied with Russell, and he insisted that I buy both albums even though I'd never heard of the guy. Thank God. Soon afterward, both albums went out of print, and they're nearly impossible to find today — so I bought this one as soon as it appeared.

Russell is the perfect example of a composer who uses solos only when they serve a greater purpose. His compositions are never, never, never written simply as vehicles for blowing over changes. He doesn't write unless he has something to say; and when he does, he knows exactly how he wants it said, which is why his works always sound like cohesive compositions rather than arrangements.

The most accessible piece is "So What," based on Miles's original trumpet solo which Russell orchestrated for the full band; and personally, I was drawn to the revamping of "It's About Time," which has always been one of my favorite compositions. But "The African Game" is probably the most poignant work on the album. Russell has explained that he believes music is more than art, more than subjective indulgence; so when he writes a suite based on the origins of life on Earth and the development of mankind, he makes a profound statement.

This piece was, in part, the reason for this live recording; the original album has long been out of print, and Russell has cynically (although probably correctly) surmised that Blue Note is waiting until he dies to license a reissue. So he took matters into his own hands — and now, for the first time since 1986, newcomers can hear "The African Game."

I hate to endorse Russell's cynicism; but if he's going to wait another ten years, this may indeed be his last recording. I have to believe he planned it that way, and deliberately arranged this program to be a retrospective of his best work. These performances were recorded during a 2003 tour of Europe; and clearly, Russell chose the best recordings of each piece for this album. It's a wonderful tribute to this giant among composers.

The 80th Birthday Concert: Listen To the Silence; Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved By Nature; The African Game; It's About Time; So What.
Personnel: George Russell, composer; Hiro Honshuku, flute, electronics; Chris Biscoe, alto saxophone; Andy Sheppard, tenor saxophone; Pete Hurt, baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Stuart Brooks, Stanton Davis, Palle Mikkelborg, trumpets; Dave Bargeron, trombone; Richard Henry, bass trombone; Mike Walker, guitar; Brad Hatfield, Steve Lodder, keyboards; Bill Urmson, Fender bass; Richie Morales, drums; Pat Hollenbeck, percussion.


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