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The Stratus Seekers: GEORGE RUSSELL Septet

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Don Ellis (tp) Dave Baker (tb) John Pierce (as) Paul Plummer (ts) George Russell (p) Stephen Swallow (b) Joe Hunt (drs)   

recorded at Plaza Sound Studios, New York; Jan. 31, 1962


  1. Pan-Daddy (5:47) (George Russell)

  2. The Stratus Seekers (6:52) (George Russell)

  3. Kige’s Tune (5:00) (Al Kiger)


  1. Blues in Orbit (7:24) (George Russell)

  2. A Lonely Place (7:18) (George Russell)

  3. Stereophrenic (5:11) (Dave Baker)

   “Color” is a word that crops up with great frequency whenever George Russell discusses music. “Dixieland has a color,” he has said; “bop is a definite color, and so is atonality.” Following tat train of thought, one might extend Russell’s thesis and refer to him as a kaleidoscopic musical figure: so many different “colors,” to use his phrase, appear on this album in so many shifting patterns that such a designation becomes almost inevitable.

   The phrase will probably not displease Russell, for he is not happy with that well-known tendency of many jazz writers to categorize somewhat too strictly and arbitrarily, to put things into a single “bag,” as the current expression has it. Obviously, if you put something into a bag, it makes it a lot easier to carry around, and you don’t have to devote quite so much attention to it. But it seems to me that the various elements of Russell’s music refuse to be contained in that way, and will push through the sides of any bag they are crammed into.

   (And while we’re at it, let me momentarily put a somewhat different emphasis on the images I’ve conjured up here. Colors, kaleidoscopes, and a music that insists on pushing its way out of arbitrary bags and containers all this certainly suggests vitality, vibrancy, a sense of enjoyment. And although Russell’s music is experimental, often difficult, and based on considerable technical theory, it is definitely full of just such vivid, electric and appealing qualities.)

   Russell has recently been placed, by some writers, in the atonal bag. This causes him considerable discomfort – since he happens to feel that jazz and atonality are basically incompatible. Nor, he points out, is atonality anything new. Jazz constantly lags behind the rest of western music, and comes up with concepts that are new to it but “old” elsewhere, somewhat in the manner of the hermit in the Alexander King story who, after years of seclusion, recently emerged with his brand-new invention – which turned out to be a typewriter. Atonality, or twelve-tone music, or serial music (Russell uses the three terms synonymously) was announced by Arnold Schoenberg nearly fifty years ago, so if there has been atonal jazz, it has obviously been late in coming. But Russell, asked now many of the pieces on the present record are atonal, replies: “None.”

   He himself prefers the word “pan-tonality,” a word which Schoenberg coined, but the principles of which he never explored. As with most evolutionary steps, it has appeared more or less simultaneously in different places. It is present formally in Russell’s music and intuitively in that of Ornette Coleman. Pan-tonality, Russell feels, is the first tonal language which jazz has evolved for itself, without borrowing from the classical. “It seems logical to me,” he once wrote, “that jazz would by-pass atonality because jazz is a music that is rooted in folk scales, which again are rooted strongly in tonality. Atonality … is the complete negation of tonal centers … It would not support, therefore, the utterance of a blues scale because this implies a tonic. But pan-tonality is a philosophy which the new jazz may easily align itself with.”

   Russell himself explains his theories quite well –and in more detail than I have either the musical knowledge or the available space to do – in a book called “The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization”, to which those sufficiently interested and knowledgeable should certainly turn. But even though understanding is an important aid to understanding, any artist’s means remain essentially his own business; the listener’s primary concern is with the results.

   The music included here is different from the earlier pieces for which Russell has been best known to the general jazz public. For when he formed a working group a couple of years ago, his music began to change. Of his efforts with the group, he says: “It brought me closer to the improviser.” It can easily be seen – and of course Ellington is the great example – that if a man is sufficiently talented, constant contact with and knowledge of the capabilities of those who play his music will make that music less abstract, more personal. And Russell has been playing piano with his group, which adds the valuable experience of sitting in the middle of his music and finding out what happens to it.

   Thus the band itself, as it appears here, constitutes another color, or as Russell prefers to express it in this context, “another tool2. Four of the members are retained from the last Russell recording prior to this, “Ezz-thetics”: trumpeter Don Ellis, who Down Beat editor Bill Cross has predicted “will be the trumpet player most contending for new-star categories”; trombonist Dave Baker; bassist Stephen Swallow; and drummer Joe Hunt. The two newcomers are tenor saxophonist Paul Plummer (“I feel he’s the best young saxophonist I’ve heard,” Russell says) and alto saxophonist john Pierce. Plummer, Pierce and Hunt were members of the Dave Baker University of Indiana band that is rapidly becoming a legend.

   As for the music itself: Russell’s Pan-Daddy (a title which, as far as jazz is concerned, aptly characterizes the composer) accomplishes the remarkable feat of moving rapidly through several stylistic and rhythmic centers – as quickly as a kaleidoscope – while retaining a feeling of homogeneity. There are hints of Gershwin-and-before, and Mingus-and-after, but it is all obviously Russell.

   The Stratus Seekers, also by Russell, opens with short Parker-like figures, played “at the discretion of the trumpet player,” and is designed with several out-of-tempo sections which serve as relief to the rapid pace. Particularly notable is Ellis’ sardonic and affectionate reference to earlier periods. Kige’s Tune, by the group’s original trumpet player, Al Kiger, has the modal, suspended feeling found in some of Miles Davis’ most influential recent work. It contains one of the best recorded examples of Russell’s piano.

   George’s Blues in Orbit is to me an essay in the various ways in which contemporary blues performance can be extended to its furthest logical limits. All the usual factors are there – double-time passages, Russell’s accompanying triplets, and even one startling hint of Monk’s Straight, No Chaser – but there is a constantly shifting rhythmic emphasis that breaks up the regulation twelve bar units into unusual groupings that challenge the soloists. Plummer’s extended solo here is the best evidence in support of Russell’s previously noted remark about this merit. A Lonely Place is an accurate evocation of a mood that is an unusual one for Russell. One example of how closely his writing approximates improvisation is the brief piano-bass duet in the middle part of the piece.

   More than two years ago, Gunther Schuller commented on the “very interesting possibilities” of Dave Baker’s “bi-rhythmic approach, which is based on the soloist playing at a tempo other than that of the rhythm section – both holding their respective tempi. The effect is very curious, and at first somewhat unsettling for the listener …” Baker’s Stereophrenic, based on that principle, may still be unsettling (not that on the stereo version of this record the soloists are deliberately heard on one channel and the rhythm section on the other), but it seems to me to be a highly successful work. Furthermore, it’s a lot of fun.

   That last comment also holds true for a good deal of the music on this set – as I pointed out earlier. Russell is by no means a forbidding figure personally, and neither, if approached openly, is his music. Referring to his predominately “in-group” reputation, he points out (with a small smile) that: “It’s a good position to be in. It allows you to be discovered and rediscovered all the time.” There is little doubt but that the rediscovery process will begin again with the release of this, his newest statement.


   Russell’s previous Riverside albums are –

Stratusphunk (RLP 341; Stereo 9341)

Ezz-thetics (RLp 375; Stereo 9375)

   (This recording is available in both Stereophonic (RLP 9412) and Monaural (RLP 412) form.)



Recording Engineer: RAY FOWLER

Recorded and Mastered at Plaza Sound Studios

Cover Design: KEN DEARDOFF

Back-liner photos by STEVE SCHAPIRO


235 West 46th Street New York City 36, New York

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