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Duncan Heining: Stratusphunk: George Russell – His Life and Music (Jazz Internationale)

Review of the British writer's second book about the Lydian Chromatic theoretician

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Cover of Duncan Heining book Stratusphunk: George Russell - His Life and Music
Cover of Duncan Heining book Stratusphunk: George Russell – His Life and Music

Along with writing about modern jazz for the last quarter-century in Great Britain, Duncan Heining has focused his attentions on drummer-turned-pianist-turned-composer-turned-arranger-turned-conceptualist George Russell since well before the 2009 publication of his biography George Russell: The Story of an American Composer. With rejiggering and revising—to say nothing of Heining’s decision to de-emphasize theory in favor of actual music—that book has now blossomed into something fresher, bolder, and more open in the newly released Stratusphunk.

As the man who designed and built the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, the first original piece of music theory to emanate from jazz rather than European classical music, Russell’s influence looms large. But his other work has flown by the wayside, along with his fascinating life story. This was a kid who sang “Moon Over Miami” with Fats Waller, hung out at Gil Evans’ midtown Manhattan apartment with Bird and Miles, and made orchestral work that was as majestic as it was funky (e.g., 1985’s The African Game). Fittingly, Heining’s new book borrows its quirkily humorous title from a 1960 Russell album, one dealing with outer-galactic vibes, wily jazz, and invincibly experimental swing. 

With that, Heining blows away some of the mustiness of his first volume, removing any hint of legend or enigma and adding richer details of Russell’s life and rearing in the Midwest—the struggles with adoption and the considerable racism he experienced (including the humiliation of being asked to play Aunt Jemima in a school-play version of Gone with the Wind)—and elements of the early Cincinnati jazz scene that spurred a young Russell to action, and to moving on. Stratusphunk offers the personal and cultural context that Heining’s initial book lacked.

Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept—the 1953 text that made instant believers out of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman—doesn’t exactly take a back seat here. Rather, it heads on over to the passenger side, letting Russell’s gently ambitious and delectably indiscriminate large-scale compositions take the wheel. They’re all detailed in Stratusphunk, which offers the finest cataloging of his albums, composer credits, and side sessions that a fan can find.