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tratusphunk: GEORGE RUSSELL Sextet

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Al Kiger (tp) Dave Baker (tb) Dave Young (ts) George Russell (p, arr) Chuck Israel (b) Joe Hunt (drs)        

NYC; October 18, 1960


  1. Stratusphunk (6:03) (George Russell)

  2. New Donna (8:18) (George Russell)

  3. Bent Eagle (6:50) (Carla Bley)


  1. Kentucky Oysters (8:16) (Dave Baker)

  2. Lambskins (7:05) (David Lahm)

  3. Things New (6:52) (George Russell)

   Stratusphunk, in addition to being a strikingly unusual word coined by GEORGE RUSSELL as a title for one of his compositions, can also serve as a particularly apt description of all the music played by Russell’s newly-formed sextet on its first Riverside album. Stratus pertains to a wide cloud formation (and carries a clearly implied suggestion of the far-out stratosphere), while phunk is of course merely a variation of our old friend “funk,” referring to the presence of an earthy, down-home, blues feeling. This in essence is what Russell’s music is – a fascinating fusion of old and new elements.

   “Any valid new movement in jazz,” Russell insists, “must be firmly rooted in the past. When these roots are plainly identifiable, the music is all the more exciting, because it’s new and old at the same time.”

   The Sextet, which came into existence in the Summer of 1960, represents the 37-year-old Russell’s first effort as leader of a working group. This means that another facet is being added to what has already been a notable career as an innovator in both jazz theory and jazz practice. It was probably inevitable that George, an outstanding composer, arranger and teacher, would eventually organize a group of his own. Having his ideas expressed through others apparently had to seem at least to some degree, frustrating. “I never really had my own means of direct expression as far as my music is concerned,” notes Russell, who was originally a drummer but has not worked much at that trade since the mid‘40s. “You might say that I felt I needed an instrument, so there was no choice but to get a bad.”

   Actually, George has now also become active again as an instrumentalist, and in a new area. For together with his debut as a leader, he is also making his first professional appearances as a pianist. Like many other composers and arrangers, he has long used the piano as a working tool, but playing as part of a group is a new venture. Russell already displays an intriguing piano style that provides valuable support for the horn soloists, playing in a vein that seems to include some traces of the styles of another remarkable innovator, Thelonious Monk, and of the brilliant young pianist Bill Evans, who is a long-time personal friend.

   The other members of the Sextet have all been students at the summer School of Jazz at Lenox, Mass., where Russell has taught his “Lydian” concept since 1958. All five, he points out, are “very young but firmly rooted in jazz.” Four are from Indianapolis. Trombonist Dave Baker has played with the Stan Kenton band and led an award-winning college group, the University of Indiana Jazz Orchestra, which included among its members tenor Dave Young, drummer Joe Hunt, and Al Kiger on trumpet. Bassist Chuck Israel comes from Srockbridge, Mass., and has played with Bud Powell in Europe. In describing their playing, Russell emphasizes that “all the soloists share what I consider a very important approach to contemporary jazz – an awareness that you can play on the idea, not necessarily just on the dictated chords. There are really no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ notes; what counts is whether or not you’re successful in bringing it off.”

   The Russell influence is of course also strongly felt in the material presented here. Of the three pieces that are not George’s own compositions, one is by Baker and the other two by Russell students. Bent Eagle is the work of the highly talented Carla Bley, wife of pianist Paul Bley. It is a delicate but firm piece, notable for a structure that permits almost unnoticeable transitions between composition and improvisation. Lambskins was written by David Lahm as an exercise during his studies with Russell, who scored the arrangement of it used here. This is the only selection in the album that fully abandons the conventional use of chords. Kentucky Oysters is one term for the popular Southern dish best known as chitterlings; Dave Baker’s tune of that name is, in Russell’s words, “a good old funky, down-home blues in ¾.” (At the recording session one onlooker called it “21st century soul music.” Russell wrote Stratusphunk in 1958, and describes it as “a 12-bar blues that reaches far out into the 12-tone scale.” His Things New and New Donna are both based on the chords of old standards. He calls the latter the “least easily accessible” of the numbers here. Its title is a bow in the direction of Charlie Parker, whose Donna was built on the chords of the same tune.

   GEORGE RUSSELL hails from Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was born on June 23, 1923. His father was a professor of music at Oberlin College’s fondness for and subsequent use of some of the traditional elements of jazz can perhaps be attributed to his having acquired an early interest in this music – as a child he listened to the band of the now-legendary riverboat musician, Fate Marable. Composer-arranger Jimmy Mundy, then writing for the Benny Goodman band, was a neighbor of Russell’s who also exerted an early influence. George, however, was not composing in those days; he was playing the drums in a Boy Scout Drum and Bugle Corps. By 1940 he was a music-scholarship student at Wilberforce University and playing in the college dance band. In ’43, still a drummer, Russell joined Benny Carter’s band, and it was there that he did his first writing. He then arranged for Earl Hines and Dizzy Gillespie, until an illness hospitalized him for sixteen months. At this time he began research into tonality and eventually developed his Lydian concept of tonal organization, which was to serve as the theoretical foundation for all his later work.

   Russell’s first successful composition for a large band, Cuban-Be/Cuban-Bop, a work combining jazz and Cuban rhythms, was created shortly after his release from the hospital. It was composed for Gillespie, who introduced it at his band’s first Carnegie Hall concert, in December, 1947. George went on to write for several big bands, including Artie Shaw, Claude Thornhill, and Buddy De Franco. Then, in 1950, Russell retired from active participation in jazz for three years to devote full time to completion of a thesis entitled “The Lydian Chromatic Conception of Tonal Organization.” In ’57 he was one of three composers commissioned by the Brandeis University Festival of Fine Arts to create extended jazz works. The result was All About Rosie, a widely-praised work in three movements based on a motif taken from an Alabama Negro children’s song game.

   The next highly significant forward step in Russell’s career was the formation of this Sextet in August of 1960. The group made its debut later that month in a concert at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art that ended to a standing ovation, and then went on to a series of successful club dates in New York and the Midwest.

   (The present recording is also available in Stereophonic form on RLP 9341)



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