The Outer View: GEORGE RUSSELL Sextet
Don Ellis (tp) Garnett Brown (tb) Paul Plummer (ts) George Russell (p) Steve Swallow (b) Pete La Roca (drs)
vocal on You Are my Sunshine by Sheila Jordan
Recorded in New York City; August 27, 1962
Au Privave (6:21) (Charlie Parker)
Zig-Zag (4:02) (Carla Bley)
The Outer View (10:03) (George Russell)
You Are My Sunshine (12:04) (Davis & Mitchell)
D. C. Divertimento (9:14) (George Russell)
Jazz being the difficult profession it is, often demanding much more than it returns, few men make a lasting reputation in it. A name may be known briefly, and then, as fads change or early inspiration trickles out, the name is forgotten. Even when a reputation is s secure as George Russell’s, there is no lasting guarantee of acceptance.
Jazz has its own built-in publicity machinery, and today a jazzman may speak of his “image” as if he were a politician or a product. To an extent he is both, but the image-making can still get out of hand. George Russell’s image, or reputation, is primarily that of a composer-arranger. It has been built up largely by critics looking or someone who could contribute order to the seemingly random advances of “the new things.” To them, the composer of such works as All About Rosie and Stratusphunk seemed a very likely candidate.
Musicians, however, are not always prone to follow the dictates of those who write about them, and in the last few years, Russell’s career has undergone a major, if inevitable, change. From a composer-arranger whose main work was done on specific commission for a wide variety of instrumental combinations, Russell has become the leader of his own sextet. Also, he has become a piano player, because “if I was going to have a group, I had to do something in it.”
While most discussions of this group is still centered around “George Russell’s music,” the leader himself would be pleased if more note were taken of the high degree of free improvisation that exists in the unit. Also, Russell feels, discussion of the music has tended to obscure the talents of the fine young soloists who make up the sextet. Perhaps best known of them is trumpeter Don Ellis, winner of a New Star award in the Down Beat Critics Poll, and credited by Martin Williams with the dubious distinction of having come up with the phrase, “the new thing.” Tenor saxophonist Paul Plummer, who made his recording debut on the Russell album prior to this, has a rare, open lyricism for a young tenorman and, I fell, shows unusual potential. Garnett Brown replaced Dave Baker in the sextet when the latter trombonist dislocated his jaw. Steve Swallow is one of a nucleus of young bassists who is effecting major changes on his instrument, and is perhaps best known for his work with Jimmy Giuffre. Pete La Roca is a gifted young drummer whose exposure is not at all commensurate with his talents. With the leader on piano, they work to transmit the emotional message in Russell’s music, a message which he feels has been obscured by too much concentration, on the part of some critics, on its technical aspects.
It is to make clearer the emotional content of this music that You Are My Sunshine is included on this album, as it was at the concert the sextet placed at the Museum of Modern Art in August, 1962. Probably, the idea of Russell playing Sunshine will cause some wisecracks among the hippies, before they hear it. After a listening, it will probably still remain the controversial center of most of the discussion that will be caused by this LP.
A favorite of U. S. troops in World War II, our closest equivalent to Lil Marlene, Sunshine is now perhaps the most widely known song in the world. But there has never been a Sunshine like this. The most striking of several striking features of this arrangement is the vocal by Sheila Jordan. This is her first recording, but she has not gone entirely unnoticed. There have been such comments as Don Heckman’s, in a Down Beat review of a club appearance: “I heard, from Miss Jordan, what may very well be the best jazz singing since the last days of Billie holiday. Russell feels that no one but Miss Jordan could have sung this version of the song. “She’s jazz,” he says, “but she’s Sunshine, too.” The arrangement, in fact, had its genesis when Russell and Miss Jordan were singing and playing for their own amusement in a small tavern in her home area, the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania. Someone at the bar asked to hear Sunshine (It’s really a folk song there,” Russell says, “a drinking song”), and Russell began to experiment with it. The resulting treatment mirrors his impression of the humanity of the people pitted against the cold, bleak, often brutal demands of the region. Sheila Jordan’s remarkable vocal manages to fuse country, gospel and the most sophisticated jazz singing into a unified, personal statement that is still in balance with the other elements in the piece: Don Ellis’ mocking half-valves; Paul Plummer’s airly lyricism; and Russell’s own piano, which progresses from solid blues at the opening to a churning evocation of new trends at the close.
Remarkable as it is, Sunshine is only one of five pieces on the set. Two of the others are also not Russell compositions. Au Privave, the Charlie Parker bleus that opens the album, serves as the basis for some of the freest improvisation on this record. Thus, it serves as a capsule summary of the changes that have taken place in jazz since Parker, while doing disservice neither to him nor his piece. Zig-Zag, by the talented Carla Bley (whose Bent Eagle was included in “Stratusphunk,” Russell’s first album for Riverside), is a relatively light piece, requiring no explication.
The remaining compositions are Russell’s (You Are My Sunshine, for the record, is in part the work of that staunch supporter of music and other progress, Governor Jimmie H. Davis of Louisiana). The outer View, Russell says, “reflects its title.” Its main component is a song line, around which a scale is built, which is played at gradually accelerating and diminishing tempi. It is Russell’s musical way of expressing and gals, the scale which surrounds it represents the longer, or outer view, which brings these immediacies into focus. Like Sunshine, it was performed at the museum of modern Art.
Also performed at the Museum was the other major work on the record, D. C. Divertimento. The piece takes its title from the fact that it was commissioned by B.M.I. for the First International Jazz Festival, put on in Washington in the summer of 1962 by the President’s Music Committee. It shows classical influences – the second theme is closely aligned to Stravinsky – but these influences have been completely assimilated into a jazz context: only a jazz composer could have written it, and only jazzmen could perform it.
The album as a whole is a reflection of Russell’s constantly reiterated statement that he neither writes nor thinks in one groove. He likes to work in many ways: one piece may use old techniques and references, another somber. “I’m an evolutionist,” he says, “not a revolutionist.” This album – Sunshine and Au Privave especially – supports that statement. It also points up that Russell himself is in a process of evolution; the old pigeonholes and definitions do not apply. But it is his music that is important, not anyone’s definition of it, and the music can stand by itself for anyone willing to listen.
Other GEORGE RUSSELL albums on Riverside are –
Stratusphunk (341; Stereo 9341)
Ezz-thetics (375; Stereo 9375)
The Stratus Seekers (412; Stereo 9412)
Produced by ORRIN KEEPNEWS
Recording Engineer: RAY FOWLER
Recorded at Plaza Sound Studios, New York City
Album design: KEN DAERDOFF
This recording is also available in both Stereophonic (RS 9440) and Monaural (RM 440)
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are produced by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS, Inc.
235 West 46th Street, New York City 36, New York