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Listen to the Silence

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Album Review

Listen to the Silence, in which Russell's very title is advice of some kind, open for interpretation, originated in an early-'70s Scandinavian sojourn. Indeed it is considered part of the major works of the composer and arranger from this period, beyond that his entire catalog of compositions, a main theme subsequently used in the manner of an overture, celebratory Russell muscle. What is being celebrated seems to be controversy, judging once again from varied reactions to the 1971 release. Four sections, the first two short, the second two epic, are titled simply as numbered events. As a whole Listen to the Silence is defined as a mass for orchestra and chorus in a series of "vertical form" works described by the composer as "layers or strata of divergent modes of rhythmic behavior." The Norwegian Cultural Fund coughed up the doolah to make it happen and it was premiered in Kongsberg, a small town famous for its goldmine.

"This CD really stinks," emphasizes one public commentary on the subject. To another listener, Russell created "a harrowing work of conscience." Defined in the dictionary as "extremely distressing" or an "act of plunder," the word is a more than suitable description for the experience fans of Norwegian jazz have when embroiled in the Russell controversy.

The composer's accomplices here are young musicians from the expensive northern land who would go on to build an international fan base with their ECM recording activities. Terje Rypdal and Jan Garbarek — guitarist and saxophonist, respectively, both with sounds capable of killing a squirrel at 30 feet — are the best known of the crowd involved in this performance. The problem is they don't have much to do, at least that is audible in the mix, Russell having gone in another direction from Duke Ellington's concept of setting extended pieces around talented soloists.

A non-Scandanavian in the crowd is Webster Lewis, creator of a series of instrumental disco hits only a few years later that would have probably made Russell sick to his stomach. Lewis also worked as Barry White's music director, so — voila! — a missing link between that big love machine and the controversial Russell.

The piece belongs to the canon of composition — prevalent in most all genres although perhaps not disco that makes hay with unfortunate political events, in this case the Vietnam war and genocide committed against native Americans. A classical chorus was brought in from the Oslo music conservatory, even that wasn't enough mouths for all the controversy so Russell added almost 10 more singers. These voices proclaim excerpts from Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee as well as excerpts from texts by Rainer Maria Rilke. The implications, interpretations, and sentiments involved in this work are thus all laid out very clearly, an aesthetic act that some listeners find equivalent to having their mouths packed with wet cement.

The jazz orchestra behind it all is Russell's forte, sometimes squashing the chorus as flat as Indian fry bread. He uses the orchestra as if granted the use of a dozen arms with which to re-enact all of Buddy Rich's Newport Jazz Festival drum solos not just simultaneously but in vertical form, as the man says. Pinpointing these moments of enlightenment in the Russell discography is a challenge worth taking, although the listener's head by the end may feel like the results of all-night bar-hopping. Listening to Listen to the Silence is an experience everyone ought to have at least once, although by the end they may rue having entered this particular tavern.


Born: 23 June 1923 in Cincinnati, OH

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

While George Russell was very active as a free-thinking composer, arranger, and bandleader, his biggest effect upon jazz was in the quieter role of theorist. His great contribution, apparently the first by a jazz musician to general music theory, was a book with the intimidating title The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, where he concocted a concept of playing jazz based on scales rather than chord changes. Published in 1953, Russell's theories directly paved the way for the modal...
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