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The Essence of George Russell

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Album Review

Originally issued on the Norwegian Sonet label in 1971 and later re-released on Soul Note (without "Concerto for Self-Accompanied Guitar"), The Essence Of... contained George Russell's first large-scale work to incorporate electronic elements from contemporary classical music as well as an emerging influence of modern rock. "Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature" is a massive work in which a jazz big band made up of many of the period's finest Scandinavian musicians serves as the backing orchestra for the very youthful Jan Garbarek quartet with guitarist Terje Rypdal, bassist Arild Andersen, and drummer Jon Christensen. A fairly abstract tape made up of moody, organy sounds is generally running in the background, sometimes predominating when the orchestra subsides. Otherwise, the composition progresses from theme to theme, many of them propulsive and groove-oriented, serving as platforms for improvisations from the featured players. Listeners who only know Garbarek from his later, substantially more placid work for ECM may be taken aback at the ferocity and swagger on display here, his roots in Albert Ayler very apparent. Rypdal and American trumpeter Stanton Davis are also shown to good effect, the former taking several blistering solos comparable to Sonny Sharrock's work from around the same time. If there's a problem, it's that Russell's attempts at a prescient kind of jazz-rock hybrid sometimes result in melodies that plod a little instead of dance, a common fate among jazz composers who never quite grasped what made rock so exciting in the mid-'60s. Additionally, the work (here heard in a live performance) is really a string of themes and not so much an organic whole, but these quibbles aside, it still stands up as a striking and forward-looking composition. "Concerto for Self-Accompanied Guitar," here performed by Rene Gustafsson overdubbing himself, is a lovely work, with hints of Gaelic folk music in an odd combination with Russell's patented Lydian mode jazz. "Now and Then," recorded a couple of years prior to the other pieces, is more along the lines of Russell's previous work, especially as heard on his At Beethoven Hall [Live] recording: good, rambunctious big band jazz. On the whole, highly recommended.


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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