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Not quite a Fred Anderson-esque elder statesman, and never an AACM member, Hal Russell was nonetheless a crucial link between Chicago's fertile avant-garde jazz scene of the '60s and its renaissance in the '90s. Russell helped keep the flame burning during the '80s with his NRG Ensemble, a freewheeling outfit able to execute Russell's tight compositions while echoing his surreal, almost vaudevillian sense of humor. Born in Detroit on August 28, 1926, Russell began playing drums at age four, but majored in trumpet at college; he subsequently drummed in several big bands, including those of Woody Herman and Boyd Raeburn. During the '50s, Russell freelanced around Chicago, playing sessions and club gigs. In 1959, he joined the Joe Daley Trio, whose 1963 Newport set was reputedly one of the earliest free jazz performances. Russell began leading his own groups in the late '60s, and later added the trumpet and tenor sax to his repertoire. While Russell didn't release an album during the '70s, some of his music is documented on personal recordings, including the late-'70s quintet Chemical Feast, which featured longtime collaborator Mars Williams on sax. In 1979, Russell formed the NRG Ensemble, which for most of its existence featured Williams, multi-instrumentalist Brian Sandstrom, and percussionist Steve Hunt, among others. Russell finally issued his first album with 1981's NRG Ensemble for Nessa; several more documents followed during the early '80s, including a 1982 date with Charles Tyler, Generation. In the late '80s, the group began playing frequently in Europe, and began recording for ECM in 1990 with The Finnish/Swiss Tour. A 1991 gig in Berlin with pianist Joel Futterman was preserved on Naked Colours, and Hal's Bells followed on ECM in 1992. Sadly, just after completing the semi-autobiographical album The Hal Russell Story, heart problems claimed Russell's life in September 1992. Fortunately, archival releases trickled out steadily over the next decade. ~ Steve Huey