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Ezz-thetics: George Russell Sextet

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Don Ellis (tp) Dave Baker (tb) Eric Dolphy (as, b-cl *) George Russell (p) Stephen Swallow (b) Joe Hunt (drs)     

New York City; May 8, 1961


  1. Ezz-thetic (8:57) (George Russell)

  2. Nardis (4:34) * (Miles Davis)

  3. Lydiot (8:06) (George Russell)


  1. Thoughts (5;26) * (George Russell)

  2. Honesty (8:55) (Dave Baker)

  3. ‘Round Midnight (6:29) (Thelonious Monk)

   The presence of the George Russell Sextet on the jazz scene is one of several evidences (one of about five – and I will name you no others at this time) that there are important things happening to jazz. On this LP, the sextet has a somewhat different personnel than on its previous Riverside album (RLP 341), and the evidence is perhaps even more succinct. The things that are happening are being called “the new thing,” for lack of a better tem’ “space music;” or, with frequent accuracy, “atonal jazz” – which Russell himself would describe as pan-tonal jazz. What all this reflects is the first really new step for jazz music in nearly twenty years.

   The prospects are exhilarating. But of course what matters most to all of us (the members of the George Russell Sextet included) is that it results in good music. Russell’s music comes from no forced or academic effort, or any attempt to “improve” jazz. I doubt if any kind of good music could come out of such attitudes, and surely jazz is too spontaneously natural an art, with too inevitably human a history, for such contrivances. Russell in fact traces his immediate heritage to Lester Young, who “probably led the attack long ago … he played on top of the chords” – and even further back: “I think players have been thinking horizontally, in linear melodies, since jazz began, but they didn’t rationalize it. I think there’s been pan-tonal music before now.” Another contemporary with intentions similar to Russell’s puts it this way: “Why don’t we stop playing the technical framework and play the music itself?”

   For immediate (and to me very amusing) evidence that this music has its feet planted in tradition, go directly to Thoughts. There is a little musical phrase that is very effectively woven into the fast section of this piece; trumpeter Don Ellis introduces it and then it is picked up by the other players behind him. That phrase has had several forms and several names, and the best-known of them is Down by the Riverside. Also, there is on Honesty the direct evidence of Ellis’ effective near-reverence for Rex Stewart’s humorous “vocal” effects. And there are, on this piece and elsewhere, Dave Baker’s welcome plunger trombone speeches. All of which fits in beautifully with Russell’s ideas.

   On the other hand, perhaps the best introduction to this music is the lyric clearly of Nardis – the evocative, somewhat “Easter” Miles Davis theme that ex-Davis sidemen Cannonball Adderley and bill Evans have both recorded (on Riverside RLP 269 and RLP 351, respectively) but which so far Miles himself has not. There is a compelling melodic purposefulness in Ellis’ improvising and in Baker’s. Also notice George Russell’s scoring: Nardis might tempt another man to a facile, quasi-exotic lushness, but Russell has written the horn lines in the theme so that they seem momentarily to be pulling apart. Then he quickly relieves those moments of tension as the lines come together again. The juxtaposition of shifting sounds with which Russell ends the piece is a nearly inspired way to resolve such an exciting effect.

   Thoughts is a new Russell; piece of commendable and immediate freshness. The writing suggests an easily musing and apparently random interior monologue – the kind which in the end reveals itself to have had a human order and direction of feeling of its own all along. I was particularly struck by the response of the improvisers to the writing. They were able to explore the mood that Russell sets up without being inhibited by it, and the writing and soloing seems all part of a continuous whole – something every jazz composer hopes for but few actually achieve.

   A decidedly exterior monologue is Eric Dolphy’s discourse on Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight. “I try to get the instrument to more or less speak – everybody does,” Dolphy once said. The starting introduction here – a kind of instrumental imitation of electronic sounds – is a fine contrast to Dolphy’s words-on-Monk.

   In a sense, George Russell’s career begins with ‘Round Midnight – at least it was his first hearing of that piece that brought him to New York in 1845; it indicated to him that important things were happening in jazz there. Russell was soon involved in them, and his Cubano Be/Cubano Bop was in the book of Dizzy Gillepie’s big band by 1846. As he evolved his “Lydian Concept” of music, Russell found himself with some promising students – among them Art Farmer and Bill Evans. Most importantly, I am sure, the theory has led Russell to fuller expression of his own talents as a composer, and to his present career as leader-pianist of this Sextet.

   There are three currently new members of the group on this LP: Ellis (notice especially Don’s pointed melodic clarity even at the fast tempo of Ezz-thetic); Dolphy; and bassist Stephen Swallow. Ellis has a background that includes work with Woody Herman, Kenny Dorham, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton. Directly before joining the Russell sextet, he had been leading his own “new thing” trio at Sunday jam sessions at a New York coffee house (“Man, you gotta drink coffee to play like that,” commented one wag). Dolphy worked for a couple of years with Chico Hamilton, but his colloquial virtuosity attracted greatest attention when he was with Charlie Mingus in 1960.

   This is Swallow’s first appearance on records. He is a New Yorker, born in 1940, who has played college concerts with mainstreamers like Buck Clayton and Dickie Wells and has been a member of both Bud Freeman and Paul Bley groups. His feature here is Lydiot, which Russell titled in a kind of friendly dig at his own theory (and into which, by the way, the composer has incorporated a phrase that is as old as ragtime.)

Soon after this LP was made, trombonist Baker discovered that he had been playing for nearly eight months with a dislocated jaw! (But make no allowances for it; his playing here won’t show it). It has become established by now that Baker contributes a blues to each LP by the sextet, and a special word is in order about Honesty. It uses a commendable extension of a traditional idea to fine effect. We all know of blues that begin with a suspenseful four bars of “stop time” or “break fours” – there have even been hits like Why Don’t You Do Right? and Blue Suede Shoes that use the effect. Honesty goes a step further and introduces each section in free tempo, and it is a tribute to both Baker and all the players that the pieces never uses its momentum or direction.

   The last comment surely belongs to Russell’s title piece, Ezz-thtic. This provocative theme remains unchanged since it was first written in 1949. Then it was played by two major altoists of modern jazz, Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz. Thus this version, which includes Eric Dolphy’s alto, may stand as both a summary of the past and a thesis for the future.




Album design: KEN DEARDOFF

Back-liner photos by STEVE SCHAPIRO

Recording Engineer: RAY FOWLER

Recorded at Plaza Sound Studios


235 West 46th Street New York 36, New York

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