March 2010

George Russell

6.23.23 – 7.27.09

I met George Russell in my first semester as a junior-year student at New England Conservatory in 1975. We were both from Cincinnati and I think that he liked that fact—though he had much to say about racism there and I completely agreed. Whatever the subject, George spoke his mind.

His groundbreaking theory of jazz harmony, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, made sense to me on many levels, though I must admit that I was not an acolyte. His teaching method was, to me, rather dry and unyielding, and somewhat lacking in enthusiasm. George’s real strength was as a composer and arranger—where he was most himself. I remember getting goose bumps listening to Sheila Jordan singing “You Are My Sunshine” in his strangely beautiful arrangement.

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Getting the chance to play his music was what I enjoyed the most, and got the most out of. He really believed in his music, and, to a young musician, it was inspiring to be around someone with such conviction. Though it was a challenge for a youthful player, it was worth the work: His music was intricate, eclectic, wonderfully crafted and really grooved.

We did have one memorable set-to, however. His three-part suite, “All About Rosie,” has a burning third movement featuring several choruses of a piano solo that begins unaccompanied and becomes stop-time. On the original recording, a young Bill Evans completely tore it up. One day after rehearsal, George asked me if I had listened to that recording and I said I hadn’t; I said that I didn’t want to be intimidated or unduly influenced. He looked at me with a stare that could have melted glass. Then I further (and inappropriately for a student) said that “the concept” seemed to be all about freedom to create, and that I wanted to play it my way. I guess he didn’t have much to say to that, and, to his credit, he didn’t force me to listen to it. I would like to think that he had a bit of respect for me after that, though with George one could never be sure. But after the concert he did softly say, “Nice solo.”

NEC in the mid-’70s had a world-class jazz studies faculty who were unconventional in their methods and fiercely believed in passing their knowledge on, partly by setting good examples of what it means to be a true jazz artist. There were some real heavies on the faculty, musicians who were iconoclasts and contributed significantly to the development of the music: Jaki Byard, Jimmy Giuffre, Joe Maneri, Ran Blake and George Russell—these are names for the history books. I was one lucky kid from Cincinnati to be there.

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