George Russell - piano; Thad Jones - cornet; Brian Trentham - trombone; John Gilmore - tenor sax; Steve Swallow - bass; Albert Heath - drums; Special guest, Sheila Jordan - vocals
For his July 3rd appearance at the 1964 Newport Jazz Festival, pianist-composer-arranger George Russell brought a crack sextet that included tenor saxophonist John Gilmore (a stalwart in the Sun Ra Arkestra since 1953), former Count Basie cornetist Thad Jones (who the following year would form his Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band), drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath, bassist Steve Swallow and trombonist Brian Trentham, a college student and protégé of Russell's former trombonist, David Baker.
They open their Friday afternoon set with "The Outer View," title track of Russell's 1962 Prestige album. An extended work that is teeming with dissonance and intricate stop-time passages, this driving, uptempo vehicle is fueled by Heath's precision drumming and features stellar solos from trombonist Trentham, cornetist Jones (in some of his freest playing on record) and tenor man Gilmore, who sails with pent-up power over his swinging support on several solo choruses. Russell's own unaccompanied piano solo ranges wildly from pointillistic impressionism to sublime lyricism. This provocative opener receives only scant applause from the Friday afternoon audience at Newport, but fans of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra will definitely want to take note of its sheer dynamism and renegade spirit.
Next up is "Stratosphunk," a Russell original which premiered on the 1960 Gil Evans recording for the Impulse label, Out of the Cool. Swallow sets the tone here with his walking, deep-toned upright bass intro before Jones enters with sparse muted cornet. The full ensemble eventually kicks in to support a series of urgently fluent solos by Jones, Trentham and Gilmore. While this tune may have been considered avant garde when it premiered, it sounds relatively inside and swinging (almost in a Basie sense) compared to more oblique offers like "The Outer View."
The constantly shifting suite "Volupte" receives its first public performance here. Swallow (who since the 1970s has played electric bass guitar exclusively) once again opens the piece with an unaccompanied upright bass intro. Layers of dense dissonance ensue as each of the members piles on. Driven by Russell's dissonant clusters (very reminiscent of Cecil Taylor), the horns unite for angular statements as Heath swings emphatically underneath. While the extended work remains marked by dissonant swirls from the horns and spikey atonal comping from Russell, it contains a freewheeling soloing by Gilmore over a rubato middle section that might reveal some of his influence on John Coltrane at that transitional moment in his career. Once again, Jones solos in uncharacteristically free fashion, sounding more like Don Cherry than the erstwhile Basie-ite.
They close their adventurous set with an eerily dark arrangement of "You Are My Sunshine," the upbeat ditty penned by former Louisiana governor and country music singer Jimmie Davis. Russell's juxtaposition of moaning horns, frenetic passages and brooding minor keys lends a decided requiem-like vibe to this "Sunshine." Unfortunately, it fades out before the appearance of vocalist Sheila Jordan, who appeared on the original recording (1962's The Outer View) and was indeed at this Newport gig (according to reports by Down Beat magazine).
A hugely influential, innovative figure in the evolution of modern jazz, Russell was a trail blazing theorist whose ideas transformed and inspired some of the greatest musicians of our time. Born in Cincinnati on June 23, 1923, Russell began playing drums with the Boy Scout Drum and Bugle Corps and later earned a living as a jazz drummer in a Cincinnati nightclub. He eventually received a scholarship to Wilberforce University where he joined the Collegians, the college dance/jazz band whose list of alumni include such jazz greats as Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson, Ben Webster, Cootie Williams, Ernie Wilkins and Frank Foster. While recuperating from tuberculosis in 1941, he spent six months in the hospital, where he learned the fundamentals of harmony from a fellow patient.
In 1943, Russell joined Benny Carter's band as a drummer but was soon replaced by Max Roach, which forced him to go into the woodshed and focus more intently on composition. He would later sell his first work, "New World," to his former employer Carter. After moving to New York in 1945, Russell became part of a group of musicians who gathered in the basement apartment of composer-arranger Gil Evans. The circle included Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, Johnny Carisi, John Lewis and on occasion, Charlie Parker. In 1947, as a member of the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, Russell collaborated with Dizzy and Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo on the seminal Afro-Cuban jazz masterpiece "Cubano Be/Cubano Bop." In 1949, Russell merged elements of Charlie Parker and Igor Stravinsky on "Bird in Igor's Yard," which was recorded by clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and his big band. In subsequent years, Russell was on a mission to develop a new system for relating chords to scales, which led to "Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization." First published in 1953, the Lydian Concept paved the way into modal music, as demonstrated by Miles Davis on Kind of Blue and by John Coltrane on Giant Steps.
In 1959, Russell opened some eyes on the jazz scene with his Impulse album New York, N.Y, comprised of an ambitious suite of music about life in the Big Apple with sharp-witted prose by Jon Hendricks that featured a Who's Who in jazz, including pianist Bill Evans, drummer Max Roach, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, bassist Milt Hinton, trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, trumpeters Art Farmer and Doc Severinsen and guitarist Barry Galbraith. In 1961, he gained more attention for his provocative "new thing" sextet recording Ezz-thetics, which featured Russell on piano, Eric Dolphy on alto sax, Don Ellis on trumpet, Dave Baker on trombone, Joe Hunt on drums and a 20-year-old Steve Swallow on bass (in his first-ever appearance on record).
Relocating to Scandinavia in 1964, Russell found widespread acceptance for his work in Sweden and Norway, frequently appearing on radio and TV fronting bands of local musicians. While there, he recorded two albums with a potent sextet including the stellar young Norwegian musicians Jan Garbarek on tenor sax, Terje Rypdal on guitar, Arild Andersen on bass and Jon Christensen on drums. In 1969, Russell returned to the States at the request of his old friend, Gunther Schuller, to teach at the newly created Jazz Department at the New England Conservatory, where Schuller was President. He continued to develop the Lydian Concept through the 1970s while touring with his own groups and composing extended works, including 1972's Living Time, which reunited him with pianist Bill Evans. His 1985 Blue Note recording, The African Game, a 45-minute opus for 25 musicians, received two Grammy nominations. He continued performing through the '80s with his Living Time Orchestra, a flexible 14-piece unit that combined advanced jazz harmonies, earthy funk and rock power.
Russell received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1989 and the following year was named an NEA Jazz Master. Russell's last recording was 2003's The 80th Birthday Concert, a live two-CD set for the Concept label that suitably summed up his career. He died at age 86 on July 27, 2009. (Milkowski)